I mentioned last week that the book of Numbers alternates between history and law; or between historical narrative and legal instruction; and that the legal instructions are normally connected in some way to the historical narrative which precedes them. So, chapters 16 and 17 contain the narrative account of the rebellion by Korah and others who rose up to oppose Moses and Aaron. Korah, a Levite, wanted to take on the duties of the priesthood and to appear before the Lord in the Tabernacle. And the historical account of his rebellion is followed by chapter 18 which contains laws about the duties which the Lord assigned to the priests and Levites; and about how the people were to support the priests and Levites with gifts and offerings. So, these legal instructions about the priests and Levites follow the narrative of how some of the people had rebelled against Aaron the High Priest.
And, of course, when Korah and the others rebelled against the Lord and against Moses and Aaron, the Lord’s wrath broke out against them, so that they were killed; and when the people grumbled about what had happened, the Lord sent a plague and killed another 14,700 of them. Because of their rebellion, many of them died. And so, in chapter 19 what do we find? Well, we find laws about what the people needed to do whenever they came into contact with a dead body. After Korah’s rebellion, the camp was full of dead bodies; and coming into contact with the dead, made the people ceremonially unclean.
So, here are instructions for what the people needed to do in order to become clean again. And, of course, as the years went on in the wilderness, more and more of those who had left Egypt were getting older and were dying. And so, once again, here are instructions for what the people needed to do whenever they became unclean because of a dead body. And since ceremonial uncleanness symbolises moral uncleanness and sin, then these laws speak to us about the sinfulness of our hearts and how we are cleansed from our sin by means of the blood of Christ.
The chapter can be divided into two parts. Verses 1 to 10 contain instructions about making the water of cleansing; and verses 11 to 22 contain instructions about how to use the water of cleansing.
Verses 1 to 10
In verse 1 the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron and instructed them to tell the Israelites to bring them a red heifer. According to verse 3, they were to give this red heifer to Eleazar, who was Aaron’s son and also a priest; and he was to take it, not to the altar, but he was to take it outside the camp where it was to be slaughtered in his presence. The colour of the heifer presumably signifies blood.
According to verse 2, the heifer was to be without defect or blemish. We’ve seen this before: since these sacrifices symbolise the Lord Jesus, who offered himself as a perfect sacrifice for sins, then the animals offered to God in the Old Testament had to be perfect too. And for this particular offering, they could only use animals which had never been put to work under a yoke.
According to verse 4 Eleazar was to take some of the blood of the heifer and sprinkle it seven times in the direction of the Tent of Meeting. This recalls the procedure for the sin or purification offering, when normally the animal was slaughtered at the altar in the Tabernacle and then the blood was sprinkled seven times in front of the curtain of the sanctuary in order to cleanse the Tabernacle from defilement. But since this red heifer was slaughtered outside the camp, then all the priest could do was sprinkle the blood in the direction of the sanctuary.
And then, in the presence of the priest, someone had to burn the slaughtered animal. And while it was being burned, the priest had to add to the fire some cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet wool. No explanation is given for why this was required.
You’ll see from verses 7 and 8 that the priest and his helper must wash before returning to the camp; and they are unclean until the evening. Meanwhile, according to verse 9, another man must gather up the ashes of the heifer and store them in a ceremonially clean place outside the camp. And it’s only at this point that the purpose of this procedure becomes clear, because in verse 9 we’re told that the ashes are to be used for the water of cleansing as a purification from sin. So, the ashes of this heifer were to be added to water in order to cleanse the people from uncleanness.
And just as the priest and his helper had to wash, so the man who collected the ashes must also wash; and he too was unclean until the evening. And you’ll see from verse 10 that this was to be a lasting, or a permanent, ordinance for the Israelites and for any foreigners who lived among them.
Verses 11 to 22
If verses 1 to 10 are about making the water for cleansing, verses 11 to 22 are about how to use it. And it starts in verses 11 to 13 with the general rule that whoever touches a dead body will be ceremonially unclean for seven days. In order to remove the uncleanness, this person must wash on the third and seventh day; then he will be clean. Anyone who fails to purify himself will defile the Lord’s Tabernacle; and such a person must be cut off from Israel. The commentators debate what ‘being cut off’ means: some think it means being ex-communicated, so that they were sent away from the camp; but it’s more likely that it means the guilty person will be killed, either by the Lord himself or by the hand of his people. In other words, it’s vital that any unclean person washes himself or herself so that they will not die.
That’s the general rule and verses 14 to 16 describe two particular cases. Firstly, if someone dies in a tent, anyone who is in the tent will become unclean. So, if they woke up in the morning, and a member of their family had died in the night, everyone else in the tent became unclean for seven days. Furthermore any food in an open container in the tent was also regarded as unclean. Secondly, if any of them were outside and came into contact with someone who had been killed in battle or someone who who had died a natural death or even if they came into contact with a human bone or a grave, then that person became unclean for seven days.
Verses 17 to 19 describe the procedure to follow: someone was to add some of the ashes from the red heifer into the water. Then someone was to take some hyssop and use it to sprinkle the water onto the unclean person on the third and seventh day in order to purify that person. The person being cleansed must also wash his clothes and bathe himself with water. And then, by evening, he should be regarded as clean.
The person who fails to purify himself in this way must be cut off. Why? According to verse 20 it’s because he’s defiled the Lord’s sanctuary. None of us likes to live in a dirty house; and the Lord too did not like to live in a house which had been defiled by the uncleanness of the people. And so, the unclean person who was defiling his house had to be cut off.
And then, according to verses 21 and 22, the person who had sprinkled the water on the person being cleansed became unclean himself. And so, he had to wash and he remained unclean until the evening.
Those are the rules for the water of cleansing: firstly, how to make it by burning the ashes of a red heifer and mixing it with water; and secondly, how to use the water of cleansing to purify anyone who had become unclean by coming into contact with a corpse.
Well, from Psalm 51 we learn that ceremonial uncleanness signifies moral uncleanness and sin. In that psalm, David wrote:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion, blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
And he went on to write:
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
In that psalm, David wasn’t talking about ceremonial uncleanness; he was talking about his sin and his guilt, because he was thinking about how he had sinned against the Lord with Bathsheba. But he used the imagery of Numbers 19 and of being cleansed with hyssop to express how he knew he was a guilty sinner who needed the Lord to cleanse him from the guilt of his sin. And, of course, sinners are not cleansed by the ashes of a red heifer, but by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. And so, in Hebrews 9, the writer contrasts this Old Testament ceremony with the blood of Christ. He wrote:
For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
The ashes of a heifer made the people outwardly or ceremonially clean. But the blood of Christ purifies our guilty conscience. And our conscience is guilty, not because we have come into contact with a dead body, but because of our dead works, which are the sins we commit and which make us liable to death. But through faith in the Saviour — who offered himself to God on our behalf as a perfect sacrifice for sin — we’re washed and cleansed from the guilt of our sin.
And, of course, according to the writer to the Hebrews, we are washed and cleansed by the blood of Christ so that we will serve the living God. He’s the living God who gives eternal life to all who trust in his Son. And he calls on his pardoned people to serve him every day by obeying his laws and commandments and by doing his will. And so, we’re to trust in Christ whose blood washes away the stain of our sin. And we’re to serve the living and true God, who calls on us to obey him and to do his will here on earth.
But notice one last thing; and it’s the significance of the last part of the chapter where we read that the person who cleanses the unclean person himself becomes unclean. And so, the person who was unclean becomes clean; and the person who was clean becomes unclean.
And doesn’t that speak to us of what happened at the cross? At the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ — who never once sinned and who was perfectly pure — was cut off and died in order to cleanse us. On the other hand, we sinners — who sin against the Lord all the time — are washed and cleansed. And so, through faith in Christ, the person who was unclean becomes clean, because the person who was clean became unclean. And so, we ought to give thanks to God for Jesus Christ his Son who became sin for us, so that we might become righteous before God and live in his presence for ever and for ever.