Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Purification by the ashes of a red cow
The chapter is an isolated section of priestly writing, having no connexion with the narrative of Korah and the privileges of priests and Levites (16–18), nor with the following narrative of the events at Kadesh (20). The regulations fall into two parts: (1) Numbers 19:1-13. The ingredients and effects of the purifying water in cases of pollution arising from contact with a dead body. (2) Numbers 19:14-22. An expanded, and stricter, form of Numbers 19:11-13, probably by a different hand.
The principle that contact with the dead causes pollution is primitive and wide-spread. Gray (Numb. 243 f.) gives instances from America, Africa, and Asia, and from ancient Greece and Rome. The particular method enjoined in this chapter for removing the pollution, though the chapter in its present form is the work of P , must have been based upon primitive usage. A red cow, which has no blemish and which has never been yoked, is to be brought to Eleazar and then led outside the camp and killed (Numbers 19:2-3). Eleazar is to sprinkle some of the blood seven times in the direction of the front (the Eastern end) of the Tent (Numbers 19:4); in his sight the cow, with all its parts complete, is to be burnt (Numbers 19:5); and upon the burning carcase he is to throw cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet thread (Numbers 19:6). The ashes mixed with water are to be used as the ‘water of impurity’ (Numbers 19:9), with which are to be sprinkled any persons who incur pollution by contact with the dead (Numbers 19:11-13). This law is referred to in Numbers 31:19-24; and in Hebrews 9:13 f. a contrast is drawn between ‘the ashes of an heifer’ which purify the flesh, and the blood of Christ which purifies the conscience from ‘dead works.’ The use of the ‘water of impurity’ was not universal in Israel, for cases of pollution by the dead are dealt with by other means; see Leviticus 5:2; Leviticus 5:5-13 (unwitting contact with a dead animal), Numbers 11:24-28 (contact with the carcase of an unclean animal), Numbers 22:4-6 (the pollution of a priest who touches anything that is already polluted by the dead), Numbers 6:6-12 (the pollution of a Nazirite by touching the dead).
And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying,
This is the ordinance of the law which the LORD hath commanded, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke:2. a red heifer] a red cow. The Heb. word is that ordinarily used for the full-grown animal (e.g. Genesis 41:2-4; 1 Samuel 6:7). The reason for the particular colour is not known. The red animal and the scarlet thread may both, perhaps, have had reference to blood as an instrument of purification.
without spot] perfect. Any blemish, such as lameness, blindness, or the malformation of a limb, would disqualify it.
And ye shall give her unto Eleazar the priest, that he may bring her forth without the camp, and one shall slay her before his face:3. and one shall bring her forth] Probably the person who is to kill her; not Eleazar.
And Eleazar the priest shall take of her blood with his finger, and sprinkle of her blood directly before the tabernacle of the congregation seven times:
And one shall burn the heifer in his sight; her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, shall he burn:
And the priest shall take cedar wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer.6. cedar wood, and hyssop] The former, perhaps, for its durability, the latter for its cleansing qualities. It is doubtful, however, if ‘hyssop’ is the true rendering of the Heb. ’çzôbh, since the hyssop is not native to Palestine. The ‘cape’ and the ‘marjoram’ have been suggested.
In the purification of the leper the same objects are employed, but with a different purpose. The cedar wood and ’çzôbh, bound together by a scarlet thread, formed an instrument for sprinkling blood upon the recovered leper and his house (Leviticus 14:4; Leviticus 14:6; Leviticus 14:49; Leviticus 14:51). See Numbers 19:18 below.
Then the priest shall wash his clothes, and he shall bathe his flesh in water, and afterward he shall come into the camp, and the priest shall be unclean until the even.
And he that burneth her shall wash his clothes in water, and bathe his flesh in water, and shall be unclean until the even.
And a man that is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and lay them up without the camp in a clean place, and it shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for a water of separation: it is a purification for sin.9. it shall be kept] i.e. the ashes, for which the Heb. word is singular, not plural.
a water of impurity] i.e. a water for the removal of impurity. Cf. ‘water of sin’ (Numbers 8:7). The word niddâh, ‘impurity,’ signifies something loathsome or abominable.
it is a sin-offering] The cow (not the water) could be called a sin-offering because it was burnt; but, since the ashes are the object of chief importance, the word hattâ’th (‘sin-offering’) must be understood in the more general sense of ‘something which removes sin.’ LXX. ἅγνισμα.
And he that gathereth the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even: and it shall be unto the children of Israel, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among them, for a statute for ever.
He that toucheth the dead body of any man shall be unclean seven days.
He shall purify himself with it on the third day, and on the seventh day he shall be clean: but if he purify not himself the third day, then the seventh day he shall not be clean.12. therewith] with the ‘water of impurity.’
It is clear that the writer of Numbers 19:19 understood the sprinkling to have been performed twice. But in this verse, according to R.V. , it is performed only on the third day. R.V. marg. is probably, therefore, to be preferred in both its renderings; and the verse means that the polluted man must purify himself on the third day and the seventh day; he shall be clean in that case, but not otherwise.
Whosoever toucheth the dead body of any man that is dead, and purifieth not himself, defileth the tabernacle of the LORD; and that soul shall be cut off from Israel: because the water of separation was not sprinkled upon him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is yet upon him.
This is the law, when a man dieth in a tent: all that come into the tent, and all that is in the tent, shall be unclean seven days.14–22. A second use of the ‘water of impurity.’
Mere presence under the same roof as the dead, without actual contact, causes defilement.
And every open vessel, which hath no covering bound upon it, is unclean.
And whosoever toucheth one that is slain with a sword in the open fields, or a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.16. or a grave] The thought of defilement from unwitting contact with a grave underlies our Lord’s denunciation of the Pharisees in Luke 11:44.
And for an unclean person they shall take of the ashes of the burnt heifer of purification for sin, and running water shall be put thereto in a vessel:17. the sin-offering] The word is used in the same sense as in Numbers 19:9.
running water] Water fresh from a running stream. This is more explicit than the former account, in which (Numbers 19:9) the mixing of water with the ashes is taken for granted.
And a clean person shall take hyssop, and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it upon the tent, and upon all the vessels, and upon the persons that were there, and upon him that touched a bone, or one slain, or one dead, or a grave:18. The ’çzôbh (‘hyssop’) is not mentioned in this section as being burnt; it is here used as an instrument for sprinkling: see Numbers 19:6.
And the clean person shall sprinkle upon the unclean on the third day, and on the seventh day: and on the seventh day he shall purify himself, and wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and shall be clean at even.19. he shall wash his clothes &c.] The defiled person must do this after having been sprinkled. This is absent from the law in Numbers 19:12.
But the man that shall be unclean, and shall not purify himself, that soul shall be cut off from among the congregation, because he hath defiled the sanctuary of the LORD: the water of separation hath not been sprinkled upon him; he is unclean.
And it shall be a perpetual statute unto them, that he that sprinkleth the water of separation shall wash his clothes; and he that toucheth the water of separation shall be unclean until even.21. The man who sprinkles the sacred water becomes ‘unclean’; and in the next clause it is stated more generally that the man who touches it becomes unclean. The uncleanness in this case is slight; it lasts until the evening and can be removed by simply washing the clothes. Gray cites a Buddhist parallel from Max Müller, Sacred Books of the East, ii. 250. A close connexion existed in the Semitic mind between ‘uncleanness’ and ‘holiness.’ ‘Holiness’ or ‘sacredness’ was a contagious quality which debarred its possessor from ordinary intercourse with others until the contagion had been removed. Inanimate objects could also receive the contagion: see on Numbers 16:37.
And whatsoever the unclean person toucheth shall be unclean; and the soul that toucheth it shall be unclean until even.