Numbers 19
Pulpit Commentary
And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying,
Verse 1. - And the Lord spake unto Moses and unto Aaron. On the addition of the second name see on Numbers 18:1. There is no note of time in connection with this chapter, but internal evidence points strongly to the supposition that it belongs to the early days of wandering after the ban. It belongs to a period when death had resumed his normal, and more than his normal, power over the children of Israel; when, having been for a short time expelled (except in a limited number of cases - see above on Numbers 10:28), he had come back with frightful rigour to reign over a doomed generation. It belongs also, as it would seem, to a time when the daily, monthly, and even annual routine of sacrifice and purgation was suspended through poverty, distress, and disfavour with God. It tells of the mercy and condescension which did not leave even the rebellious and excommunicate without some simple remedy, some easily-obtainable solace, for the one religious distress which must of necessity press upon them daily and hourly, not only as Israelites, but as children of the East, sharing the ordinary superstitions of the age. Through the valley of the shadow of death they were doomed at Kadesh to walk, while their fellows fell beside them one by one, until the reek and taint of death passed upon the whole congregation. Almost all nations have had, as is well known, an instinctive horror of death, which has every. where demanded separation and purification on the part of those who have come in contact with it (Bahr, 'Symbolik,' 2, page 466 sq.). And this religious horror had not been combated, but, on the contrary, fostered and deepened by the Mosaic legislation. The law everywhere encouraged the idea that sin and death were essentially connected, and that disease and death spread their infection in the spiritual as well as in the natural order of things. Life and death were the two opposite poles under the law, as under the gospel; but the eye of faith was fixed upon natural life and natural death, and was not trained to look beyond. It could never have occurred to a Jew to say, "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori." To die, however nobly, was not only to be cut off from God oneself, but to become a curse and a danger and a cause of religious defilement to those around. There is, therefore, a beautiful consistency between this enactment and the circumstances of the time on the one hand, between this enactment and the revealed character of God on the other hand. Although they were his covenant people no more, since they were under sentence of death, yet, like others, and more than others, they had religious horrors and religious fears - not very spiritual, perhaps, but very real to them; these horrors and fears cried to him piteously for relief, and that relief he was careful to give. They must die, but they need not suffer daily torment of death; they must not worship him in the splendid and perfect order of his appointed ritual, but they should at least have the rites which should make life tolerable to them. It appears to be a mistake to connect this ordinance especially with the plague which occurred after the rebellion of Korah. It was not an exceptional calamity, the effects of which might indeed be widespread, but would be soon over, which the people had to dread exceedingly; it was the daily mortality always going on in every camp under all circumstances. If only the elder generation died off in the wilderness, this alone would yield nearly 100 victims every day, and by each of these a considerable number of the survivors must have been defiled. Thus, in the absence of special provision, one of two things must have happened: either the unhappy people would have grown callous and indifferent to the awful presence of death; or, more probably, a dark cloud of religious horror and depression would have permanently enveloped them.
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:
Verse 2. - This is the ordinance of the law. חֻקַּת הַתּורָה. Law-statute: an unusual combination only found elsewhere in Numbers 31:21, which also concerns legal purifications. A red heifer. This offering was obviously intended, apart from its symbolic significance, to be studiedly simple and cheap. In contradiction to the many and costly and ever-repeated sacrifices of the Sinaitic legislation, this was a single individual, a female, and of the most common description: red is the most ordinary colour of cattle, and a young heifer is of less value than any other beast of its kind. The ingenuity indeed of the Jews heaped around the choice of this animal a multitude of precise requirements, and supplemented the prescribed ritual with many ceremonies, some of which are incorporated by the Targums with the sacred text; but even so they could not destroy the remarkable contrast between the simplicity of this offering and the elaborate complexity of those ordained at Sinai. Only six red heifers are said to have been needed during the whole of Jewish history, so far-reaching and so long-enduring were the uses and advantages of a single immolation. It is evident that this ordinance had for its distinguishing character oneness as opposed to multiplicity, simplicity contrasted with elaborateness. Without spot, wherein is no blemish. See on Leviticus 4:8. However little, comparatively speaking, the victim might cost them, it must yet be perfect of its kind. The later Jews held that three white hairs together on any part of the body made it unfit for the purpose. On the sex and color of the offering see below. Upon which never came yoke. Cf. Deuteronomy 21:3; 1 Samuel 6:7. The imposition of the yoke, according to the common sentiment of all nations, was a species of degradation, and therefore inconsistent with the ideal of what was fit to be offered in rids ease. That the matter was wholly one of sentiment is nothing to the point: God doth not care for oxen of any kind, but he doth care that man should give him what is, whether in fact or in fancy, the best of its sort.
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:
Verse 3. - Unto Eleazar the priest. Possibly in order that Aaron himself might not be associated with dearly, even in this indirect way (see verse 6). In after times, however, it was usually the high priest who officiated on this occasion, and therefore it is quite as likely that Eleazar was designated because he was already beginning to take the place of his father in his especial duties. Without the camp. The bodies of those animals which were offered for the sin of the congregation were always burnt outside the camp, the law thus testifying that sin and death had no proper place within the city of God. In this case, however, the whole sacrifice was performed outside the camp, and was only brought into relation with the national sanctuary by the sprinkling of the blood in that direction. Various symbolic reasons have been assigned to this fact, but none are satisfactory except the following: -

1. It served to intensify the conviction, which the whole of this ordinance was intended to bring home to the minds of men, that death was an awful thing, and that everything connected with it was wholly foreign to the presence and habitation of the living God.

2. It served to mark with more emphasis the contrast between this one offering, which was perhaps almost the only one they had in the wilderness, and those which ought to have been offered continually according to the Levitical ordinances. The red heifer stood quite outside the number of ordinary victims as demanded by the law, and therefore it was not slain at any hallowed altar, nor, necessarily, by any hallowed hand.

3. It served to prefigure in a wonderful and indeed startling way the sacrifice of Christ outside the gate. In later days the heifer was conducted upon a double tier of arches over the ravine of Kedron to the opposite slope of Olivet. That he may bring her forth... and one shall slay her. The nominative to both these verbs is alike unexpressed. Septuagint, καὶ ἐξάξουσιν . . καὶ σφάξουσιν. In the practice of later ages the high priest led her out, and another priest killed her in his presence, but it was not so commanded.
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:
Verse 4. And Eleazar... shall... sprinkle of her blood directly before (אֵל־נֹכַח פְּנֵי) the tabernacle. By this act the death of the heifer became a sacrificial offering. The sprinkling in the direction of the sanctuary intimated that the offering was made to him that dwelt therein, and the "seven times" was the ordinary number of perfect performance (Leviticus 4:17, &c.).
And one shall burn the heifer in his sight; her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, shall he burn:
Verse 5. - One shall burn the heifer. See on Exodus 29:14. And her blood. In all other cases the blood was poured away beside the altar, because in the blood was the life, and the life was given to God in exchange for the life of the offerer. This great truth, which underlay all animal sacrifices, was represented in this case by the sprinkling towards the sanctuary. The rest of the blood was burnt with the carcass, either because outside the holy precincts there was no consecrated earth to receive the blood, or in order that the virtue of the blood might in a figure pass into the ashes and add to their efficacy.
And the priest shall take cedar wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer.
Verse 6. - Cedar wood, and scarlet, and hyssop. See on Leviticus 14:4-6 for the significance of these things. The antiseptic and medicinal qualities of the cedar (Juniperus oxycedrus) and hyssop (probably Capparis spinosa) make their use readily intelligible; the symbolism of the "scarlet" is much more obscure.
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.
Verse 7. - The priest shall be unclean until the even, i.e., the priest who superintended the sacrifice, and dipped his finger in the blood. Every one of these details was devised in order to express the intensely infectious character of death in its moral aspect. The very ashes, which were so widely potent for cleansing (verse 10), and the cleansing water itself (verse 19), made every one that touched them, even for the purifying of another, himself unclean. At the same time the ashes, while, as it were, so redolent of death that they must be kept outside the camp, were most holy, and were to be laid up by a clean man in a clean place (verse 9). These contradictions find their true explanation only when we consider them as foreshadowing the mysteries of the atonement.
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.
Verse 9. - For a water of separation, i.e., a water which should remedy the state of legal separation due to the defilement of death, just as in chapter 8 the water of purification from sin is called the water of sin.
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.
Verse 10. - It shall be unto the children of Israel... a statute for ever. This may refer only to the former part of the verse, according to the analogy of verse 21, or it may refer to the whole ordinance of the red heifer.
He that toucheth the dead body of any man shall be unclean seven days.
Verse 11. - Shall be unclean seven days. The fact of defilement by contact with the dead had been mentioned before (Leviticus 21:1; Numbers 5:2; Numbers 6:6; Numbers 9:6), and had no doubt been recognized as a religious pollution from ancient times; but the exact period of consequent uncleanness is here definitely fixed.
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.
Verse 12. - With it. בּו i.e., as the sense clearly demands, with the water of separation.
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.
Verse 13. - Defileth the tabernacle of the Lord. On the bearing of this remarkable announcement see Leviticus 15:31. The uncleanness of death was not simply a personal matter, it involved, if not duly purged, the whole congregation, and reached even to God himself, for its defilement spread to the sanctuary. Cut off from Israel, i.e., excommunicate on earth, and liable to the direct visitation of Heaven (cf. Genesis 17:14).
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.
Verse 14. - This is the law. הַתּורָה. By this law the extent of the infection is rigidly defined, as its duration by the last. In a tent. This fixes the date of the law as given in the wilderness, but it leaves in some uncertainty the rule as to settled habitations. The Septuagint, however, has here ἐν οἰκίᾳ, and therefore it would appear that the law was transferred without modification from the tent to the house. In the case of large houses with many inhabitants, some relaxation of the strictness must have been found necessary.
And every open vessel, which hath no covering bound upon it, is unclean.
Verse 15. - Which hath no covering bound upon it. So the Septuagint (ὅσα οὐχὶ δεσμὸν καταδέδεται ἐπ αὐτῷ), and this is the sense. In the Hebrew פָּתִיל, a string, stands in apposition to צָּמִיד, a covering. If the vessel was open, its contents were polluted by the odour of death.
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.
Verse 16. - One that is slain with a sword. This would apply especially, it would seem, to the field of battle; but the law must certainly have been relaxed in the case of soldiers. Or a bone of a man, or a grave. Thus the defilement was extended to the mouldering remains of humanity, and even to the tombs (μνήματα. Cf. Luke 11:44) which held them.
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:
Verse 17. - Running water. Septuagint, ὕδωρ ζῶν (cf. Leviticus 14:5; John 4:10).
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:
Verse 18. - Shall take hyssop. See Exodus 12:22, and cf. Psalm 51:7.
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.
Verse 19. - On the third day, and on the seventh day. The twice-repeated application of holy water marked the clinging nature of the pollution to be removed; so also the repetition of the threat in the following verse marked the heinousness of the neglect to seek its removal.
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.
Verse 21. - It shall be a perpetual statute. This formula usually emphasizes something of solemn importance. In this case, as apparently above in verse 10, the regulations thus enforced might seem of trifling moment. But the whole design of this ordinance, down to its minutest detail, was to stamp upon physical death a far-reaching power of defiling and separating from God, which extended even to the very means Divinely appointed as a remedy. The Jew, whose religious feelings were modeled upon this law, must have felt himself entangled in the meshes of a net so widely cast about him that he could hardly quite escape it by extreme caution and multiplied observances; he might indeed exclaim, unless habit hardened him to it, "Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?"

And whatsoever the unclean person toucheth shall be unclean; and the soul that toucheth it shall be unclean until even.
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