1 Now the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, 2 “This is the statute of the law that the Lord has commanded: Tell the people of Israel to bring you a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish, and on which a yoke has never come. 3 And you shall give it to Eleazar the priest, and it shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered before him. 4 And Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger, and sprinkle some of its blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times. 5 And the heifer shall be burned in his sight. Its skin, its flesh, and its blood, with its dung, shall be burned. 6 And the priest shall take cedarwood and hyssop and scarlet yarn, and throw them into the fire burning the heifer. 7 Then the priest shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. But the priest shall be unclean until evening. 8 The one who burns the heifer shall wash his clothes in water and bathe his body in water and shall be unclean until evening. 9 And a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place. And they shall be kept for the water for impurity for the congregation of the people of Israel; it is a sin offering. 10 And the one who gathers the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening. And this shall be a perpetual statute for the people of Israel, and for the stranger who sojourns among them. – Numbers 19:1-10 ESV
One of the things to keep in mind when reading these verses is the recent judgment that God had enacted upon the people of God. As a result of Korah’s rebellion, nearly 15,000 Israelites had died from a plague that God had sent among the people. This large-scale pandemic had left the survivors with a massive clean-up task. The bodies of the fallen had to be gathered and properly buried, rendering unclean all those who participated in the operation. Having come into contact with the bodies of the dead, they would have been considered defiled and in need of purification. And God had already provided clear instructions regarding the treatment of the unclean.
“Command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp everyone who is leprous or has a discharge and everyone who is unclean through contact with the dead. You shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell.” And the people of Israel did so, and put them outside the camp; as the Lord said to Moses, so the people of Israel did. – Numbers 5:2-4 ESV
Due to the sheer number of volunteers necessary to dispose of nearly 15,000 corpses, the Israelites would have needed a tent city to house all those who had become defiled and ceremonially unclean. So, God instituted a new command that would bring a quick resolution to the problem.
“Tell the people of Israel to bring you a red heifer, a perfect animal that has no defects and has never been yoked to a plow. Give it to Eleazar the priest, and it will be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence. Eleazar will take some of its blood on his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the Tabernacle.” – Numbers 19:2-4 NLT
This was to be a corporate endeavor, with the entire congregation participating, whether they were personally unclean or not. They were to choose a red heifer that was free from defect and had never been used to pull a plow. This means it would have been a highly valuable animal in the prime of health. They were not free to bring a maimed or diseased heifer. There was no option to offer an animal well past its prime or damaged by a lifetime of hard work. This sacrifice was going to cost them something.
The whole point of this ceremony was to protect the holiness of the tabernacle. The deaths of the rebels would have ended up defiling the entire congregation. And their defilement posed a very real and present danger to the holiness of the tabernacle itself. But the death of the heifer was not meant for atonement. In other words, it’s death was not intended to cleanse from sin but to purify from defilement.
Notice the detailed instructions God provided for Aaron. First, the animal was to be slaughtered and some of its blood used as a cleansing agent.
Eleazar will take some of its blood on his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the Tabernacle. – Numbers 19:4 NLT
Eleazar was one of the four sons of Aaron and served as a priest alongside his father and brothers. His job was to supervise the entire process, ensuring that the remains of the heifer were taken outside the camp and burned. As the body was cremated, Eleazar was to add a stick of cedar, a hyssop branch, and some scarlet yarn.
“Cedar wood was not as subject to decay as most other woods and so represented the continuance of life. It was also aromatic when burnt and was probably either the common brown-berried cedar or the Phoenician juniper. Hyssop stood for purification from corruption, and the priests used it to apply blood, as in the Passover ritual. Scarlet wool symbolized the strong vital energy connected with blood (cf. Lev. 14:6). All of these elements combined to signify all that strengthened life. The person in charge added these elements to the heifer ashes as the heifer was burning.” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Numbers
The leftover ashes were to be collected and kept in a specific location outside the camp. All those involved in the sacrifice of the heifer were required to go through a special purification process before they could return to the camp. And the ashes were to be maintained for future purification of any who became defiled through contact with the dead. The ashes were to be mixed with water and used as a purifying agent. The death of the innocent and unblemished heifer was required for the cleansing properties of the water to be effective. The ashes mixed with water would provide purification from defilement and restore the guilty to a state of holiness. They could once again enter into the camp and enjoy access to the tabernacle and all the rites associated with it.
God, in His grace and mercy, provided a means by which the guilty could be forgiven and the unclean could be purified from the devastating effects of sin and death.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.