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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 19

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary


After the rejection of adult Israel at Kadesh on account of unbelief, Jehovah’s covenant with them may be called the covenant of death. They were doomed to fall in the wilderness. Death must be a more frequent visitor in the camp. But death is a ceremonial pollution. “So long as the mortality within the congregation did not exceed the natural limits, the traditional modes of purification would be quite sufficient. But when it prevailed to a hitherto unheard-of extent, in consequence of the sentence pronounced by God, the defilements would necessarily be so crowded together that the whole congregation would be in danger of being infected with the defilement of death and of forfeiting its vocation to be the holy nation of Jehovah, unless God provided it with the means of cleansing itself from this uncleanness.” Keil. Hence the water of separation provided for in this chapter has reference chiefly to the defilement from the presence of dead bodies. This chapter is occupied with directions for preparing this water, and with the modes and occasions of its use. From the apparently arbitrary requirements of this statute, the rabbins seem to have good grounds for styling it decretum absque ulla ratione, a decree without any reason. A better statement would be, that while the law is grounded on reasons in the mind of Jehovah, these reasons are not disclosed to us, but are left to be conjectured.

Verses 1-10


Running or living water applied to the body is sufficient for the removal of ordinary pollutions. But as the uncleanness of death was the most obstinately tenacious of all ceremonial defilements, by its continuance through seven days, and by requiring a double sprinkling, pure water alone was not adequate to its removal. Hence it was strengthened by the ashes of a sin offering, forming a holy alkali.

Verse 2

2. The ordinance of the law This use of two words, each of which signifies law or statute, occurs again only in Numbers 31:21, in connexion with purification. It is intended to give emphasis to the ordinance.

A red heifer No reason is assigned for the sex and color of the victim. Hence all interpretations of this symbolry must be conjectural. The following particulars have been suggested: (1.) A heifer was taken as a rebuke to pagan Egypt, which regarded her as sacred, and worshipped her as the impersonation of the goddess Isis. Herodotus says that the Egyptians sacrifice male kine, both old and young, but it is not lawful for them to sacrifice females. (2.) It was to be red, or quite red, as the rabbins interpret it, because the Egyptians sacrificed red bulls to the evil demon Typhon. (3.)

Without spot Because the Egyptians, in their selection of red bulls for sacrifice, regard as unfit the animal having a single white or black hair. See Leviticus 1:3; Leviticus 22:20-24, notes. (4.) The requirement that the heifer should be one upon which never came yoke harmonized with the ancient usage which deemed an animal which had been used for common purposes improper for sacrifice. The Homeric heroes vow to offer to Pallas “a yearling heifer which no man had yet brought under the yoke.” Il., 10: 291; Od., 3:382.

Verse 3

3. Eleazar was charged with this duty because Aaron, the high priest, must hold himself ever ready to offer the individual sin offerings of the people, for which he would be disqualified by the uncleanness which this statute of the water of preparation declares to attach to the priest superintending the sacrifice of the red heifer. Numbers 19:7.

Without the camp This was rendered necessary because the sacrifice had respect to the purification of the priests by the water of separation as well as that of the people. Hence the priests could no more eat of this sin-offering than they could of that made exclusively for themselves. See Leviticus 4:3-12, notes. It indicates that every thing dead must be removed outside the kingdom of God, over which the Prince of Life presides. After the temple was built, the heifer was customarily slain on the Mount of Olives, and the blood was sprinkled toward the sanctuary visible through the eastern gate of the temple court.

One shall slay The subject to “bring her forth” and “slay her” is indefinite. The offerer, and not the priest, was to slay the victim, except when the priest is the offerer. In this case the people not only gave the victim but appointed an offerer. All that the priest had to do was sprinkling the blood.

Verse 4

4. Before the tabernacle Properly toward the front of the tabernacle. Thus was the sacrifice referred to Jehovah.

Seven times Leviticus 4:6, note.

Verse 5

5. Shall burn the heifer The burning was not the means adopted to dispose of the victim in a fitting manner; it must have had a svmbolical significance looking toward expiation.

And her blood This, instead of being poured at the foot of the altar, was to be burned, in order to strengthen the ashes with its incombustible ingredients. Leviticus 4:12.

Verse 6

6. Cedar is remarkable for its power to resist decay. The cedar roof of the temple of Diana at Ephesus lasted four hundred years, and beams in the temple of Apollo lasted eleven hundred and seventy years. Hence cedar symbolizes the prolonged continuance of life, and hyssop purification from the corruption of death, and scarlet, or scarlet wool, the strongest vital energy, so that the ashes might be regarded “as the quintessence of all that purified and strengthened life, refined and sublimated by fire.” Leyrer. See Leviticus 14:4, note.

Verse 7

7. Wash his clothes, and… flesh “This washing of the garments and the body what is it but the cleansing of our faculties, external and internal.” Augustine.

Unclean until the even The only necessary contact of the priest with the heifer was in the sprinkling of the blood. The heifer, like all sin offerings, may be regarded as unclean, for the reason that the sins of men were imputed to the sin sacrifice, as the sins of the world were putatively laid upon Christ. “It is evident from the whole that there was no natural or necessary connexion between the sprinkling of the ashes of the heifer upon a person and cleansing him from sin. It was simply the divine appointment that gave efficacy to the act.” Bush.

Verse 9

9. Ashes… water of separation The chief ingredient of this water.

Purification for sin The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews strongly hints that this process did not work a real inward cleansing of the nature when he says, “How much more shall the blood of Christ… purge your conscience from dead (sinful) works to serve the living God.” Hebrews 9:13-14.

Verse 10

10. He that gathereth Here we have a paradox. The clean man, in gathering the ashes which make clean, becomes unclean. Does it not fore-show that the scribes, priests, and all others who procured the shedding of the blood of Christ which “cleanseth from all sin” became sinners by this very act? “Yet some of them were, and all might have been, cleansed by the virtue of that same blood which they had brought themselves under the guilt of.” Henry.

The stranger See Leviticus 23:22, note.

Verse 11

11. The dead body of any man Literally, He who toucheth the dead with regard to every soul of man; any human corpse. Contact with a dead beast defiled for only one day, (Leviticus 11:24; Leviticus 11:27; Leviticus 11:39, notes,) but by reason of the peculiar sinfulness of man and the infectiousness and hatefulness of sin, his dead body was regarded as polluting seven times more than that of the vilest animal.

Verses 11-22


The water of separation is chiefly used to remove the uncleanness arising from the dead. From remote antiquity many nations have shared in the notion that death and its attendant putrefaction, as the embodiment of sin in consequence of the fall, defiled and excluded from fellowship with the holy God. This notion is presupposed by the laws given on Sinai, and confirmed by the prohibition of the priests to attend the funerals of any except their nearest blood relations, (Leviticus 21:1-6; Leviticus 21:10-12, notes,) and by the order to remove from the camp every corpse-defiled person.

Numbers 5:2-4, note. The Egyptian priests were required to shun graves, funerals, and funeral feasts; the Persian Zenda-vesta, the ancient and modern religions of India, as well as the old Grecian and Roman rituals, were remarkably emphatic in this injunction. In New Zealand the man who has handled the dead is deemed so impure that he may not put forth his hands to his own food. In all these nations the rites of purification have points of resemblance to the Mosaic.

Verse 12

12. The third… the seventh day The selection of these days was determined by the significance of the numbers themselves. The other numbers for which there is a partiality in Levitical symbolry are four, twelve, forty, and seventy. See Leviticus 4:6, note.

Verse 13

13. Purifieth not himself In the Old Testament, as in the New Testament, sanctification has a human as well as a divine side. 2 Corinthians 7:1. God appoints the means, and man is required diligently to apply them. The culpability does not so much lie in fact of impurity as in the wilful neglect of the provisions for cleansing. The neglect to wrap up the furniture of the tabernacle insured the death of the Levite carrier who touched it. Numbers 4:18, note. Neglect to love Jesus Christ renders one worthy of the divine anathema. 1 Corinthians 16:22. There is no escape for him who simply neglects “so great salvation.” Hebrews 2:3; Matthew 25:41-42.

Defileth the tabernacle This defilement took place not merely because an unclean man ventured to enter the sanctuary, but because uncleanness in those among whom Jehovah, the Holy One, has his dwelling-place was irreconcilable with the calling of Israel to be a holy nation. Leviticus 11:44, note.

Verse 14

14. In a tent This is an incidental proof that this law was given in the wilderness. The law for the tent was afterward extended by the rabbins to the entire house, ( οικια , Septuagint), and not merely to the apartment in which the death had occurred. Modern Jews sustain the rabbins.

Verse 15

15. Every open vessel The uncovered vessel is rendered unclean by the subtle effluvia of the corpse diffused in the air. Hence, according to the Hebrew, there must be for such vessel a cover bound by a string.

Verse 16

16. A bone Hence the requirement in Ezekiel 39:15, was a safeguard against personal defilement.

A grave This elucidates Matthew 23:27.

Verse 17

17. Running water Living, that is, pure water.

Verse 18

18. A clean person This symbolizes the sinner’s need of a sinless high priest. Heb 7:26 ; 1 John 2:1.

Hyssop See Leviticus 14:4, note.

And sprinkle Lustration was prevalent among heathen nations, especially in warm climates, such as Egypt, India, Greece, and Rome.

Verse 20

20. Shall be cut off See Leviticus 7:20. This is an emphatic repetition of the threatening in Numbers 19:13. See note.

Verses 21-22

21, 22. It was to be a perpetual statute that he who sprinkled the water of separation, or even touched it, and the person defiled by the corpse-defiled person and the one polluted by his touch, should be unclean till evening. This rule applied to other forms of uncleanness. See Leviticus 15:0.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Numbers 19". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/numbers-19.html. 1874-1909.
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