Numbers 19:1-22

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Numbers chapter 19 deals with the ceremonial uncleanness contracted through death and contact with the dead and the means to remove it. The ritual that we are about to read strikes modern readers often as so much mumbo-jumbo [Wenham, 146]. They take it as proof of how superstitious and primitive these people were. But it is not so, as we will see.

Text Comment

The NIV’s “heifer” is a contextual translation. The word is “cow,” unusual in a sacrificial context where we would expect a male animal. But this cow was probably young, as indicated by the fact that it had not been worked. A heifer is by definition a cow that has not borne a calf. So it seems this cow would have been a heifer.

The officiating priest must supervise the entire ritual.

They are not near the sanctuary; they are outside the camp but they are sprinkling it toward the Tent of Meeting.

The burning of blood is unprecedented in Israel’s ritual. What is important is the producing of ashes from this burning which will have purificatory properties. That is why the blood is in the ashes: blood is the most potent agent of purification because blood is a symbol of death and purification comes through the death of a substitute. “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins and sinners plunged beneath that flood leaves all their guilty stains.” That imagery comes right back here to the OT sacrificial ritual

For the same reason – to make the ashes an agent of purification – other cleansing agents were thrown into the fire. Cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet yarn were used in the cleansing of a leper (Lev. 14:4) and in other purification rituals throughout the ANE. [Milgrom, 159] Cedar is reddish in hue and, of course, scarlet is a red. So is blood. It is probably for this reason that the heifer had to be red. Usually the color of the animal didn’t matter, but this one had to be red, probably to resemble blood. The idea was symbolically to increase the amount of blood in the ashes. [Milgrom, 158] If you compare this ritual with that of the sin offering in Lev. 4:1-12 you will immediately notice the similarities.

In other words, as we shall see, the concoction amounted to an instant sin offering.

The requirement that the one who prepares the ashes for later use should become unclean and should have to wash his clothes as did the others involved in the preparation of all of this is consistent with what else we read in the ritual texts concerning the use of blood. Blood when properly employed is an agent of cleansing but garments or vessels accidently splashed with it must be washed or destroyed (Lev. 6:27-28).

v. 11
Now we are coming to the reason for all of this and the use to which this will be put.

Here is the burden of this legislation in this section of Numbers. Previous chapters have been concerned with unauthorized men approaching and so contaminating the sanctuary by their presence. Now we learn that the ordinary Israelite can contaminate the sanctuary even from a distance, if he or she is unclean and is not purified. It is the offense against the holiness of God that animates all of this material.

All of this indicates how ritually symbolic this material is. If you are inside the tent, things become unclean. But outside the tent nothing becomes unclean as if somehow the material from which the tent is constructed keeps things from being unclean. If the lid is off a jar, what is in the jar becomes unclean. If the lid is on the jar, what is in the jar remains clean. All that is accessible to the dead body is unclean. Nothing outside the tent would be; nothing securely covered would be. This is not a principle of the spiritual life; it is a symbol of a principle of the spiritual life as we will see.

v. 19
It was always relatively easy to get ceremonially pure after defilement.

In the law of God there were two ways of removing uncleanness: 1) washing with water and waiting until evening (Lev. 11:28, 39-40; 15:16-18) or 2) in more serious cases waiting seven days and offering a sacrifice (Lev. 14:10ff; 15:13ff). Contact with death is one of the more serious forms of defilement. The expectation for those made unclean by contact with death is that a sin offering would be required. But offering a sacrifice was an expensive and time consuming procedure. You had to go to the sanctuary, you had to purchase or part with an expensive animal and it would have added to the burden already felt by a family who had suffered a death. So what they were given here was an alternative method for removing uncleanness that was much simpler, without expense, and with very little inconvenience to the worshipper. Instead of the sin offering itself the person could be treated with a concoction of water that contained all the ingredients of a sin offering. [Wenham, 146] In other words, cleansing was made quite easy to get! This is a mark of God’s kindness. Forgiveness and moral purity in a sinful world are always costly, but the cost is born by the substitute, in this case the heifer who is a type of the sacrifice, Jesus Christ himself. The forgiveness, the moral cleansing of which ceremonial cleansing was a symbol, came without complication to the Israelite man or woman once the animal had been sacrificed.

That the water of this ritual had the same effect as the more typical offerings, the more elaborate and expensive offerings – that is, purification from sin – is indicated in v. 9. Ceremonial impurity is an image of moral stain, of sin. And that is what was removed. The cleansing from ceremonial defilement is important only as a picture of something deeper and far more deadly: sin itself, its guilt and its destructive power. The same point is made in Hebrews 9:13-14 where we read:

“The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit, offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God.”

There is a relationship between the outward and the inward. There is a symbolic fitness to all of these regulations of ceremonial purity that suggest and that depict a real cleansing from real sin. The ashes of the heifer had the same effect, in other words, that the sin offering itself did. It conveyed the forgiveness of God and his cleansing of the believer’s heart.

It is now better understood as a result of the study of the Bible from the vantage point of the researches of historical sociology that rituals such as these express the deepest truths about life as they are understood in any community. One of the most transforming works of OT scholarship is a work published some forty years ago by an English woman sociologist on the significance of ritual; the way it works in culture and the way it worked in ANE culture. [Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: 1966)] It is perfectly obvious in the Old Testament itself that these rituals were not regarded as having some magical property. People were often reminded not to think that these rituals worked in the way of a spell or an incantation. Israel was taught straight away that all the rituals in the world would avail nothing if she did not love the Lord and did not seek to honor him with her life. Faith and moral obedience were far more fundamental than rituals. On the other hand the attention to ritual in Old Testament life served in those days to communicate and constantly to reinforce fundamental principles of faith and life. They were means by which the Lord offered himself to his people and made his grace and presence real in their lives.

Rituals, of course, do that in similar ways in our lives still today. For Christians such rituals as make up a worship service on the Lord’s day, including baptism and the Lord’s Supper express, confirm, deepen, purify, and shape our faith and our life Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day. Not a one of us have the foggiest idea how much would be removed from the life of faith if we removed our Christian ritual from it, how well we would do, how much we would lose. The ritual of the burial of the dead confirms, expresses and bears witness to our understanding of the meaning of death and the hope of resurrection. The rituals of engagement and the wedding bear witness – however more weakly nowadays – to the sanctity and permanence of marriage, to its nature as creating a family, and to the twinship of love and death. The rituals of last week’s inauguration day communicated something of our understanding as Americans of what government is and does, the sacred obligations of office holders, and so on. We too have our rituals and they too express deep understanding of the meaning of life.

We have already had occasion to say that death looms as large as it does in the ritual life of Israel, that it contaminates as it does, because death is the counter-principle to God who is the living one, and because death and sin are inevitably two sides of the same coin. Israel, at least some of the time, understood that much better than Americans do today.

Remember: there would be no death without sin. Death is the punishment and judgment of sin. Death is also sin’s vital principle. Sin kills; it destroys; it causes a human life to decompose and rot as surely as a dead body decays and begins to smell. There is something perfectly appropriate about the relationship drawn in this chapter and so many other places in the Bible between sin and death. If you have ever seen a dead body, the pallor, the slackness, the overwhelming sense of unfitness and unintendedness; if you have ever felt the cold, hardened skin of a corpse you know: this is not what a body was made for! I have had that experience a number of times in my life. It is unforgettable and unmistakable. But so it is with sin and its effects. It makes a soul cold, it sets decay to work, it draws the color out of a life, it brings putrefaction that anyone spiritually alive can immediately begin to smell; it often corrupts and sickens the body as well. Sin makes people sick and sucks true life out of them; sin is the contradiction of what a human life is intended to be and do! No wonder purification looms so large in a biblical world view. And no wonder death is connected to sin so closely in Israelite ritual.

Sin is everywhere and in everyone. We are all polluted by it. The Bible is relentlessly honest about that. So much so that if a person denies the reality and gravity of sin, the Bible will never make any sense to him and a chapter like this will seem downright silly. And many do deny sin’s reality and do find such a ritual as we have read in Numbers 19 simply ludicrous. The modern world’s approach more and more typically is to deny the sin, to alter the standards or, as once famously put, “to define deviancy down.” We hope to solve the pollution problem simply by joining together to declare that our behavior does not pollute and does not defile after all. Promiscuity and pornography don’t make us dirty, they actually liberate us. But, of course, they don’t liberate. This is the big lie of so much of modern life. Sins, even, perhaps especially the sins we are denying are sins at all, create real contamination and produce real death. Our sexual diversions nowadays destroy the lives of the women who are used to provide them and the souls of the men who use them. They leave us with debilitating diseases, with crippled souls, with psychological pathologies that we as a society are finding very difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. Drug use is another excellent illustration of the death-dealing pollution of sin as it actually is in the early 21st century. Here is a sin that visibly pollutes and defiles the body and the soul at the same time. But all sins do this, however less visibly.

To solve our sin problem by defining it away, to deny the pollution and the death that sin causes is an approach made so much more ironic in our time because at the same time we viciously condemn anyone who attempts to do the same thing in respect to outward things. Let management claim that the waste water they are dumping from their factory into the river is actually good for the fish and see how far they get! Modern Western culture is like a young boy who refuses to put a favorite set of jeans in the wash because he wants to wear them tomorrow as well. “They’re not dirty,” he tells his mother; “actually you can hardly see that ketchup stain and lots of fellows have grass stains on their pants. It’s very ‘in’ to have jeans with grass stains on them.” But the mother knows better: the jeans are filthy and need to be washed.

Hannah Arendt famously concluded in her study of Adolph Eichmann, one of those responsible for the murder of millions of Jews during the Second World War, that evil is usually banal, not exciting and not exceptional. It comes to pass as naturally as the death of an old man in a tent and the tender touch of a loved one saying farewell. Eichmann was an ordinary man; not particularly smart and not particularly ideological. He wanted to be accepted, he followed the crowd, he hid his conduct behind a screen of clichés and the anonymity of an enormous bureaucracy and, day after day, this ordinary fellow – who landed his first significant job as a vacuum cleaner salesman only through family connections – sent uncounted multitudes to a cruel and terrible death. Humdrum evil, day after day, in the ordinary life of ordinary people. Is this not the story of 21st century America, as it has been of human life everywhere and always? As Arendt summed up her study of Eichmann:

“The terrifying thing is the nagging suspicion that these people, these vile people, were in significant ways no different [from] ourselves.”

It is very interesting that Arendt’s study has been severely attacked in the years since it has been published by people I think who are absolutely unwilling to assent to that final evaluation.

The ritual of the Mosaic Law, as it were, held the people’s noses to the moral cesspool and forced them to reckon all the time with the reality of impurity and the need for cleansing. It reminded them again and again that the impurity of one can contaminate others as well; something we also know all too well in life. Sin leads to sin. The drug addict becomes a thief to support his habit. The promiscuous person or the person given to pornography must almost invariably become a liar as well. Sin is infectious in other ways. The sins of others are constantly provoking us to sin. Sins committed against us make us angry or bitter or afraid. Sins committed against children produce all manner of unhealthy and unattractive responses in them as they grow up. We are all together in sin and need to be together in cleansing. How beautifully this is put in this particular ritual where those who need cleansing and those responsible to provide it must together avail themselves of the water and the ashes.

An honest heart and a truthful conscience will never mock these rituals as if they were superstitious or primitive. An honest heart knows full well how impossible it is to escape the stain of sin in this life, how impurity and contamination await us at every turn, and, therefore, how wonderful it is to know and to be reminded that there is a way to be purified and cleansed. Sin cannot be avoided; but it is possible to be clean anyway!

In the Bible that cleansing comes both once for all and repeatedly. As Jesus said to Peter when, after he protested the Lord’s intention to wash his feet and then insisted that the Lord Jesus wash not only his feet but his hands and his head as well, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean.” Peter was already clean in the larger sense, he had the forgiveness of God. But there was a second sense, a subsidiary sense in which he needed purification every day. And so we are reminded in the Bible daily to confess our sins to God that they might forgiven and we be cleansed from them. As John Owen put it – an expert on sin and forgiveness – [this confessing of our sins] “is every day’s work; I know not how any peace can be maintained with God without it.” [Works, ii, 194]

Think of the once-for-all cleansing as the acquittal provided by a judge in his courtroom: “You are free to go!” Think of the every day cleansing as the forgiveness given and received in a loving relationship between parents and children or a husband and his wife. The first situates you in the world of forgiveness; the second gives you the new experience of that forgiveness and cleansing day after day.

The ritual of the water of cleansing belongs not so much to the once for all cleansing from sin that we receive through faith in Jesus Christ, the once for all sacrifice for sin, but to the daily, repeated cleansing from sin that believers receive from the Lord as they ask him for it. What is their ritual but an enacted prayer for forgiveness? As often as they are polluted, contaminated, so simply but so completely are they cleansed. A few shakes of the hyssop branch that had been dipped in the water poured over the ashes of the heifer and one is clean again or, at the most, a few shakes done twice. The heifer without defect or blemish had to be destroyed to provide those ashes but once the animal was destroyed how readily available the cleansing. And in our time, a bowing before the Lord, the confession of the sin, and the seeking of pardon, and it is done. We walk away, our scarlet souls now white through the cleansing power of Christ’s blood.

The problem is that the surpassing wonder of this is absolutely lost on people who have grown comfortable with their sins and their spiritual contamination and who are never forced to see it and reckon with it and do something about it. It is only those who want to be clean, who feel dirty and want to be clean again who know to revel in the cleansing from sin that Christ provides.

There is a volume of letters in Latin that C.S. Lewis exchanged with an Italian priest, one Don Giovanni Calabria, in the years 1947 to 1954. Lewis wasn’t as comfortable writing in Italian nor Calabria in English, so they corresponded in Latin. I have used these letters in my Latin classes at Covenant High School because Lewis’ Latin is as clear and uncluttered as his English.

In one of these letters, dated December 26, 1951, Lewis wrote to his Italian friend:

“As for myself, during the past year a great joy has befallen me. Difficult though it is, I shall try to explain this in words.

“It is astonishing that sometimes we believe what, really, in our heart, we do not believe.

“For a long time I believed that I believed in the forgiveness of sins. But suddenly (on St. Mark’s day [April 25]) this truth appeared in my mind in so clear a light that I perceived that never before (and that after many confessions and absolutions) had I believed it with my whole heart.

“So great is the difference between mere affirmation by the intellect and that faith, fixed in the very marrow and as it were palpable, that the Apostle [Paul described as the substance of faith].

“This emboldens me to say to you something that a layman ought scarcely to say to a priest nor a junior to a senior. (On the other hand, out of the mouths of babes: indeed, as once to Balaam, out of the mouth of an ass!)

“It is this: you write much about your own sins. Beware (permit me, my dearest Father, to say beware) lest humility should pass over into anxiety or sadness. It is bidden us to ‘rejoice and always rejoice’. Jesus has cancelled the handwriting which was against us. Lift up our hearts!” [The Latin Letters of C.S. Lewis, 68-71]

You get Lewis’ point. It is one thing to believe in forgiveness; it is another thing altogether to glory in it, to bask in it, to rejoice in it! How kind the Lord is: an instant sin offering available to you whenever you need it. And easier now even than it was for the ancient church. Cleansing whenever, for whatever it is needed. Always it is possible to be clean! Nothing more is required but that one desire this purity and ask for it in Jesus’ name.

A friend met John Duncan, the inimitable “Rabbi” Duncan, on an Edinburgh street one day when political developments were very much in the news and the subject of everyone’s conversations. “Is there any news today?” the friend asked Duncan. “Oh, yes,” he replied, “this is always news, the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin.” [Just a Talker, xxxiii]