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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Numbers 19

 

 

Introduction

Chapter 19 The Water or Uncleanness.

In this chapter the problem of dealing with the defilement of death is dealt with on behalf of the community whose prospect is now life.

4). The Water of Uncleanness - Provision for Israel’s Dealings With Yahweh Enabling The Removal Of Uncleanness Resulting From Contact With Death (chapter 19).

The placing of this chapter is important. It closes the period of wilderness wandering with the promise of life to God’s people. It is central to the structure of the book. For this section, 15-19 parallels Numbers 20:1 to Numbers 21:20 which opens the new period and also ends with the promise of life, in the latter case through abundance of water. Furthermore in 15-19 the ministry of the priesthood is emphasised. In Numbers 20:1 to Numbers 21:20 the renewal of the priesthood, through the death of Aaron and the appointment of Eleazar, is stressed, both resulting in life for Israel.

In this chapter we have described ‘the water for uncleanness’ (or more correctly the water for removal of uncleanness), the water containing the ashes of a heifer used for sprinkling by a clean person for the removal of uncleanness. This was the means of freeing any in Israel from all taint of death so as once again to be able to have dealings with Yahweh. It concluded the series of: the provision for dedication and purification and giving of tribute through offerings and sacrifices (Numbers 15), the certifying of the priesthood for the making of atonement and intercession before Yahweh (Numbers 16-17), and the confirming of levitical service with regard to the maintenance of the holiness of the Dwellingplace, in preparation for entry into the land (Numbers 18). Once this completed the picture all provision was now made for the new Israel’s future.

It may be that the placing of this provision here as opposed to in Numbers 5 may be in order to stress that death was the lot of the first generation of the people as a result of their failure to enter the land. While there was cleansing from the taint of death, in the final analysis they could not be purified from it. It hung over them all their lives. Nevertheless that they did have available the water of purification is probable from its probable mention in Numbers 7:9.

This subject brings out the great contrast between the Dwellingplace and outside the camp. In the Dwellingplace was the living God, the Lord of life, the One Who Is. Death could neither reach Him nor touch Him. He was the opposite of all that death was. To be in a right relationship with Him was to enjoy life. Death was an enemy. It resulted from sin and led to corruption, and darkness, and the world of the grave. But Yahweh was totally pure, totally free from sin and corruption, dwelling in unapproachable light, and ruling the heavens brighter than the sun. He was the source of life, the living God. No taint of death must therefore enter the Dwellingplace, apart from atoning death, which represented life given in death in order to make atonement for one whose sin had made him as good as dead. Such a death, the death of an animal substitute and representative, was acceptable to Yahweh, for it was His provision for purification and atonement.

In contrast outside the camp was the world of death and corruption. There death occurred freely, but it was not to be brought into the camp, and was wholly barred from the Dwellingplace. The camp itself was a mid-way zone. Death occurred there, but it was to be separated and isolated, and its taint had to be removed through the ritual about to be described, or in mild cases by waiting on God.

Death was thus something to be feared and avoided. Even contact with death was to be shunned. Thus to come into contact with death was to be rendered unclean. To touch or come into contact with a dead animal was to require a period of waiting before Yahweh until the evening, having first made preparation by washing the body with water to remove earthiness. But to come into contact with the dead body of a man or woman, or to be in a tent where there was death, was to be rendered so deeply unclean that the cleansing process lasted seven days and required the application of sacrificial blood and an indication of the restoration of life.

So was made clear that Yahweh is the living God, the source and giver of life, and that death is foreign to His being and His whole purposes. Death was the great enemy to be shunned and rejected. And it was made clear that His people could come from the sphere of death to the sphere of life through the sprinkling of the blood of a substitute and representative, slain in their place through God’s good provision. Thus could death be put behind them.

But while it was an enemy from which they needed to be delivered, death was common. Contact with death was so common, and so had to be dealt with, that only the High Priest could be kept from it by his deliberate abstention from anything that could bring him into contact with death (Leviticus 21:10-12). While by some unfortunate accident it could happen even to him, if it was possible it was to be avoided at all costs, for it defiled him and made him unfit for seven days to fulfil his ministry. It was the opposite of all he stood for, and prevented him from entry into the Holy Place.

Indeed when he himself died it was so momentous an event that a new era was seen to begin (Numbers 35:25; Numbers 35:28). With the rise of a new high priest a new life began for all, and the past was dead and gone. Even the manslayer could return home. While therefore a time of grief it was also a time of celebration. A new future was secured. It was as though a new creation had begun. This will shortly be illustrated in the death of Aaron and the rise of Eleazar.

Such was the importance of the High Priest’s ministry that the unbroken maintenance of his ministry as far as possible was seen as vital for Israel. He must thus avoid all contact with death, which would render him unfit to approach the living God, the Lord of life. The priests also were to seek to avoid contact with death, but in their case were permitted such contact for close relatives (Leviticus 21:1-4). Otherwise all regularly came into contact with death, and this would be more so in the wilderness wandering when the whole of a generation would be wiped out. So if sacrifices had been necessary each time someone came into contact with death the herds and flocks would have proved insufficient and have been sadly depleted. Yet at the same time the obnoxious nature of death had to be brought out. And so an alternative to sacrifice was provided in the water of uncleanness, which had the efficacy of the blood of sacrifice in regard to ritual uncleanness through contact with the dead, but did not require constant deaths. It provided ‘one death for all’, a suitable picture of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus the one sacrifice could deal with the many occasions. In some ways it can be compared with the offerings on the Day of Atonement. But even those had to be repeated yearly, and even the ashes had to be renewed eventually. It was only the death of Jesus, Who is also our permanently continuing High Priest (Hebrews 7:25-28), that could really be once for all (Hebrews 10:14).

This chapter may be analysed as follows:

a The perpetual statute of the slaughter of the red heifer and storing of the ashes (Numbers 19:1-10).

b The application of the ashes on those who have touched the dead (Numbers 19:11-12).

c Judgment on those who refuse the use of the ashes (Numbers 19:13).

d The description of what is unclean (Numbers 19:14-16).

d The application of the ashes to the unclean through the ‘water of uncleanness’ (Numbers 19:17-19).

c Judgment on the one who refuses to be cleansed (Numbers 19:20 a).

b Those who have not had the ashes applied to them and on whom the water of uncleanness has not been sprinkled so that they are unclean (Numbers 19:20 b).

a This is stated to be a perpetual statute. Those who touch the water of uncleanness, containing the ashes applied to the one who has touched the dead, are to purify themselves and all who have touched the unclean person to be unclean until the evening num (19:21-22).

These will now be dealt with under their separate headings, and further analysed.


Verse 1-2

The Slaughter of the Red Heifer and Storing of the Ashes (Numbers 19:1-10).

In this we may reverently suggest that we have a picture of our Lord Jesus Christ Whose sacrifice through His death for us is in one sense ‘stored up’ that we might draw on it in time of need (1 John 1:7). Through His sacrifice we can be freed from the grip and taint of death, so that it cease to be an enemy but becomes powerless (Hebrews 2:14-15).

Firstly the procedures for the slaughter of the red heifer and the preparation of the ashes from which the water of uncleanness could be made, are described.

Analysis.

a A permanent statute. The red heifer to be selected, free from blemish and never yoked (Numbers 19:1-2).

b The red heifer to be brought outside the camp by Eleazar and slain before him (Numbers 19:3).

c Eleazar to apply the blood of the red heifer by sprinkling towards the front of the Tent of meeting seven times (Numbers 19:4).

d The remains of the heifer to be totally burnt before his eyes (Numbers 19:5).

c Eleazar to cast the cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet into the burning remains of the heifer (Numbers 19:6).

b Eleazar to wash his clothes and bathe and return to camp and to be unclean until the evening (Numbers 19:7).

a The one who burns the heifer to wash his clothes and bathe and to be unclean until the evening, and the one who gathers the purifying ashes to store them outside the camp and then cleanse himself . A statute for ever (Numbers 19:8-10)

It should be noted that all who come in contact with this procedure are rendered mildly unclean. It is to enter into the domain of death. Thus the High Priest himself could not be involved. Furthermore the ashes themselves had to remain outside the camp. Anything connected with death had no right inside the camp.

The Red Heifer to be Selected, Free from Blemish and Never Under the Yoke (Numbers 19:1-2).

Numbers 19:1

‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying,’

Once more it is stressed that these were the words of Yahweh to Moses and Aaron.

Numbers 19:2

This is the statute of the law which Yahweh has commanded, saying, Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring you a red heifer without spot, in which is no blemish, and on which never came yoke.”

Note the solemn stress laid on the importance of this issue. ‘This is the statute (what is prescribed) of the Instruction which Yahweh has commanded’. It was something especially to be taken notice of (compare Numbers 31:21 which also referred to purification).

The children of Israel were to ‘bring you a red heifer without spot, in which is no blemish, and on which never came yoke.’ The heifer ( literally ‘cow’, but one that had not worked) was to be reddish in colour, without any defacing marks, without blemish, and never having been used for work. It was necessarily to be female, as the producer of life (Genesis 3:20). It was to be young and innocent and free and full of life. The ‘reddish’ colour may signify wellbeing and good health, the unblemished state signified its perfection, and its not having yet worked signified its exuberance of life. It epitomised the life of the ideal clean man or woman in innocence.

It was to be brought by the children of Israel. By this they were acknowledging it as their representative, slaughtered on their behalf.


Verse 3

The Red Heifer To Be Brought Outside the Camp by Eleazar and Slain Before Him (Numbers 19:3).

Numbers 19:3

And you shall give her to Eleazar the priest, and he shall bring her forth outside the camp, and one shall slay her before his face,”

Here was one full of life and without imperfection, brought to the priest. But she was to be brought by the priest outside the camp, for all procedures related to death had to be dealt with there. They must not involve the camp. And there she was to be slain by a member of the congregation of Israel. The sinless life was taken in the shedding of blood, in a life poured out in death, poured out by one whom she represented. Here we have one being the substitute for, and representing, the many. The resulting combined sprinkling, the sprinkling of her shed blood, and then its application through the sprinkling of the water of uncleanness, is indicated in both Isaiah 52:15 and Ezekiel 36:25.


Verse 4

Eleazar to Apply the Blood of the Red Heifer by Sprinkling Towards the Front of the Tent of Meeting Seven Times (Numbers 19:4).

Numbers 19:4

And Eleazar the priest shall take of her blood with his finger, and sprinkle her blood towards the front of the tent of meeting seven times.”

Eleazar the priest, Aaron’s eldest son, was to be present, deputising for the High Priest who could not come into contact with a ceremonial which spoke of death. The slaughter was not specifically an offering, for it was not offered on the altar (although it was a purification for sin offering - verses 9. 17), but Eleazar’s next action was to take some of the blood from the red heifer on to his finger and sprinkle it towards the front of the Tent of meeting seven times (compare Leviticus 16:14-19). The idea was to apply the blood before Yahweh even though outside the camp. This was done seven times in order to signify the divine completeness of the atonement.

This may be compared with the original sacrifice of the Passover lamb. That too was not on an altar. But it was also stated to be a sacrifice ((Exodus 12:27).


Verse 5

The Remains of the Heifer to be Totally Burnt Before His Eyes (Numbers 19:5).

Numbers 19:5

And one shall burn the heifer in his sight, her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, will he burn.”

The whole of the heifer, even the dung (this was because it represented total death), was then to be burnt to ashes by a member of the congregation of Israel in the very presence of Eleazar who was to act as witness to what was done. All the proprieties had to be observed. Even the blood was to be burned. It had its essential part to play among the ashes for application to those tainted by death who were to be cleansed, restored to the covenant and re-sanctified (Exodus 24:8; Exodus 29:21; Leviticus 14:51).


Verse 6

Eleazar to Cast Cedar Wood, Hyssop and Scarlet into the Burning Remains of the Heifer While It Burned (Numbers 19:6).

Numbers 19:6

And the priest shall take cedar-wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer.”

The priest was then to cast into the place where the heifer was burning, cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet (compare here Leviticus 14:4). Cedar wood denoted strength and size and long life in a living thing. It was an indication of fullness of life. The cedars of Lebanon were famous for their height and beauty and long life. Hyssop was a plant used for the application of sacrificial blood and water. It was a purging and cleansing agent (Psalms 51:7; compare 19:18; Exodus 12:22). Scarlet was the colour of blood and might represent sacrificial death. Or it may represent the destruction of the sin that caused death (Isaiah 1:18), or the emergence of new life (Genesis 38:28; Genesis 38:30). Thus this emphasised the introduction of life, cleansing and atonement into the ashes.



Verse 7

Eleazar To Wash His Clothes and Bathe and Return To Camp and To Be Unclean Until the Evening (Numbers 19:7).

Numbers 19:7

Then the priest shall wash his clothes, and he shall bathe his flesh in water, and afterwards he shall come into the camp, and the priest shall be unclean until the even.”

Having fulfilled his function the priest would then return to the camp, indicating that he had accomplished what he had come to do (Numbers 19:3). But preparatory to this he had to wash his clothes to remove defilement, and bathe himself in order to remove any element of his participation in the ceremony (contrast the man in Numbers 19:10). He had been in contact with what represented death. He was then to remain in isolation within the camp until the evening. The isolation was to be within the camp of the holy people, indicating its part in the cleansing process, but he could not approach the Sanctuary. He was temporarily ‘unclean’.


Verses 8-10

The One Who Burns the Heifer Also To Wash His Clothes and Bathe and To Be Unclean Until the Evening, and The One Who Gathers the Purifying Ashes to Store Them Outside the Camp and Then Cleanse Himself ( Numbers 19:8-10)

Numbers 19:8

And he who burns her shall wash his clothes in water, and bathe his flesh in water, and shall be unclean until the evening.”

The one who had burned the heifer also had to go through the cleansing process of the washing of clothes, bathing and the waiting until evening. All in contact with this ritual were tainted by death, even though only lightly.

Numbers 19:9

And a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and lay them up outside the camp in a clean place, and it shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for a water for uncleanness. It is a purification for sin offering.”

Then one who had not participated in the ceremony (he was clean) and was ritually clean in every regard, was to gather up the ashes of the heifer and store them outside the camp in a clean place. The ashes were sacred not impure, and care had to be taken to avoid uncleanness. They were to be kept pure. But their function connected with death prevented their being brought into the camp.

Numbers 19:10

And he who gathers the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the evening, and it shall be to the children of Israel, and to the stranger who resides among them, for a statute for ever.”

The one who gathered the ashes had also come in mild contact with the taint of death and was to wash his clothes and be unclean until the evening. It will be noted that he was not required to bathe. He had not participated in the ceremony. The taint of death connected with that did not affect him.

“And it shall be to the children of Israel, and to the stranger who resides among them, for a statute for ever.” The question must be as to whether this applies to what precedes or what follows. It connects back with Numbers 19:2 and forward to Numbers 19:21. This suggests that it may be a connecting phrase conjoining both sections of the chapter. Both sections were to apply to all involved in the camp, and then in the land, for ever.


Verses 10-22

The Uncleanness of Contact With Death And Its Removal (Numbers 19:10-22).

In view of our earlier analysis of the whole chapter the following section is necessarily chiastic.

a The one who touches the dead to be unclean seven days (Numbers 19:11).

b The application of the ashes on those who have touched the dead (Numbers 19:10-12).

c Judgment on those who refuse the use of the ashes (Numbers 19:13).

d The description of what is unclean (Numbers 19:14-16).

d The application of the ashes to the unclean through the ‘water of uncleanness’ (Numbers 19:17-19).

c Judgment on the one who refuses to be cleansed (Numbers 19:20 a).

b Those who have not had the ashes applied to them, and on whom the water of uncleanness has not been sprinkled, are unclean (Numbers 19:20 b).

a Those who touch the water of uncleanness, containing the ashes applied to the one who has touched the dead, are to purify themselves and all who have touched the unclean person are unclean until the evening (Numbers 19:21-22).

We must now consider this in more detail.

Numbers 19:11

He who touches the dead body of any man shall be unclean seven days,”

To come into contact with the dead body of any person was to be unclean for at least seven days. Such was the intensity of the uncleanness that there was no way in which that uncleanness could be removed before the passage of a divinely complete period for its cleansing. And even then it could only be after due process. But once that process was completed the person could feel totally released from its taint.

Numbers 19:12

The same shall purify himself with it on the third day, and on the seventh day he shall be clean. But if he does not purify himself the third day, then the seventh day he shall not be clean.”

The person who needed to be cleansed from the defilement of contact with death had to purify himself on the third day by the application of the water of uncleanness. Should he fail to do this he would not become clean on the seventh day (see Numbers 19:19).

Numbers 19:13

Whoever touches a dead person, the body of a man who has died, and does not purify himself, defiles the tabernacle of Yahweh, and that person shall be cut off from Israel, because the water for uncleanness was not sprinkled on him, he shall be unclean. His uncleanness is yet on him.”

The situation was considered to be so serious that to fail to take advantage of such cleansing would make the person liable to the death penalty. By such behaviour they would be defiling the Dwellingplace of Yahweh by introducing permanent death into the camp, and treating death lightly. Death was an enemy that had to be excluded, a disease that had to be eradicated. Of course, if they remained for ever outside the camp it would not matter. There would be no problem. The problem lay with those who were careless with regard to contact with death but thought that they could live among the holy people in the camp which surrounded the dwellingplace of Yahweh. That was not possible.

This ‘cutting off’ might be through death or permanent banishment. But usually being cut off denotes death, and it probably therefore does here. It would not, however, presumably be applied to one who remained permanently away from the camp. It should be noted that this is speaking of sin with a high hand, a deliberate refusal to submit to cleansing. It is not speaking of those who innocently were unaware of their need to be cleansed.

Numbers 19:14

This is the law when a man dies in a tent. Every one who comes into the tent, and every one who is in the tent, shall be unclean seven days.”

The taint of uncleanness when a man died affected everyone who came into his tent and everyone who lived there. They lived under the shadow and taint of death for seven days and had to be cleansed.

Numbers 19:15

And every open vessel, which has no covering bound on it, is unclean.”

The uncleanness even extended to any open vessel, any vessel with no ‘lid’ on it. The taint of death affected it and what was in it. It permeated everywhere within the tent.

Numbers 19:16

And whoever in the open field touches one who is slain with a sword, or a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.”

The same applied to contact with a dead man as a result of battle, or coming across a dead body and touching it (which presumably any merciful person would do under most circumstances), or even touching the bone of a man, or a grave. All possible contact with human death is involved. It would be a regularly occurring event in the lives of many people. But such was the awfulness of death that it rendered those who came in contact with it as unclean (see introduction to the chapter).

Numbers 19:17

And for the unclean they shall take of the ashes of the burning of the purification for sin offering, and running water shall be put to it in a vessel,”

For any rendered unclean the ashes of the purification for sin offering (as described in Numbers 19:1-10) were to be put in a vessel with ‘running water’, such as water taken from a spring which was untainted and ‘living’. This water could then be utilised for cleansing. (In this regard we should note that this is the only water which in itself is ever said to have ‘cleansed’ anyone, and it cleansed because it contained sacrificial ashes).

Numbers 19:18

And a clean person shall take hyssop, and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it on the tent, and on all the vessels, and on the persons who were there, and on the one who touches the bone, or the slain, or the dead, or the grave,”

The process was to be carried out by a clean person, untainted by the taint of death or impurity. That person would take hyssop and dip it into the water and with it sprinkle the tent in which the man had died, all the vessels and persons who had been there, and anyone who touched a bone, or a slain man, or a dead corpse, or a grave.

Numbers 19:19

And the clean person shall sprinkle on the unclean on the third day, and on the seventh day, and on the seventh day he shall purify him, and he shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and shall be clean in the evening.”

This sprinkling was to be carried out on the third day and on the seventh day. The sprinkling on the seventh day would purify him, but only if he had also been sprinkled on the third day (Numbers 19:12). Then each person sprinkled must wash their clothes, bathe themselves in water and be unclean until the evening. They were, as it were, having a new beginning, arising from their uncleanness and contact with death. That this would be hygienically wise is undoubted, but the main purpose cultically was that the person might feel themselves removed from the grip of death, and that all might know that it was so. Now they could recommence normal life and approach Yahweh in as far as an ordinary person could do so.

Numbers 19:20

But the man who shall be unclean, and shall not purify himself, that person shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly, because he has defiled the sanctuary of Yahweh. The water for uncleanness has not been sprinkled on him. He is unclean.”

However, the person who refused cleansing, and thus sinned against Yahweh with a high hand, was to be cut off because he had defiled the Sanctuary of Yahweh (compare Numbers 19:13). He could have no further part in the assembly. He was as one dead. And this was because he had accepted ‘death’ by refusing to be cleansed from it. The water of uncleanness had not been sprinkled on him. He was unclean by choice. He would be either excluded or put to death. He had the choice there too (no one would prevent his flight).

Numbers 19:21-22

And it shall be a perpetual statute to them: and he who sprinkles the water for uncleanness shall wash his clothes, and he who touches the water for uncleanness shall be unclean until the evening. And whatever the unclean person touches shall be unclean. And the person who touches it shall be unclean until the evening.”

This was to be a perpetual statute for all Israel. Meanwhile the one who had performed the sprinkling must wash his clothes, presumably lest any drop had fallen on them. And anyone actually touched by the water of uncleanness would be unclean until the evening. And whatever was touched by such a person would become unclean, as would anyone who touched what had become unclean. Such was the scrupulousness with which the taint of death should be avoided.

Thus was the taint of the enemy death to be removed from the people of God, so that they might serve the living God without fear. Death was the opposite of all that God wanted for them, and all that God is. This passage is the foundation for Isaiah’s teaching that death would one day be swallowed up (Isaiah 25:8). It was unnatural to God’s purposes. And it would result in Isaiah’s teaching concerning resurrection (Isaiah 26:19). Compare also Paul’s description of death as the last enemy which will be abolished (1 Corinthians 15:26). Adam had introduced death into the world by sin. Through the death of His own Son God would remove it for ever. And this was what the sacrifice of the red heifer pointed to (Hebrews 9:13-14). We come to a better cleansing through the blood of Jesus (1 John 1:7).

It may be asked why such a procedure was necessary for cleansing from such contact with death. Both theologically and psychologically its effect was profound. It illustrated that death was an enemy, that it was foreign to God. It illustrated the fact that God is the living God to Whom death is abhorrent. It illustrated the fact that God gives life from death. But above all it comforted those involved in the process with the recognition that the death had no power over them. They were freed from it and no longer affected by it. They need not fear it or feel defiled by it. They were once more acceptable to God and free from every taint of it. (It also incidentally helped to prevent disease).

So the first part of Numbers stressed the mobilisation of Israel for the possessing of the land (chapters 1-10). The second part has now demonstrated Israel’s failure to obey God and enter the land (chapters 10-14), and their subsequent wilderness wandering, but with the last part stressing the future that would be theirs once they entered the land. It has thus ended with the promise of life (chapters 15-19). The second half, and remainder of the book will outline the preparation and first moves towards again moving forward to possess the land, establishing the hope of life (Numbers 20:1 to Numbers 21:21) and certainty of victory (chapters 22-25), while also establishing Israel in Transjordan as a kind of firstfruit of future victory and the final possession of the land. It will end with the final settlement in the land of five outstanding representatives of faithfulness to the covenant, the daughters of Zelophehad (chapters 26-36).

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 19:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/numbers-19.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, June 2nd, 2020
the Week of Proper 4 / Ordinary 9
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