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God’s Word for You

Numbers 19:1-6 The red heifer is burned

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, October 11, 2021

In this chapter, God gives Israel the procedure for purification from the uncleanness of death.

Purification Rites

19 The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron: 2 These are requirements of the law which the LORD has commanded. Tell the Israelites to bring you a red heifer without blemish, one that has no defect and that has never been under a yoke. 3 You are to give it to Eleazar the priest. He is to have it taken outside of the camp and slaughtered in his presence. 4 With his finger Eleazar the priest is to take some of its blood and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the Tent of Meeting. 5 The heifer is to be burned in his sight. Its hide, flesh, and blood are to be burned along with its manure. 6 The priest will take cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet yarn and throw them onto the burning heifer.

The penalty for sin is death. God warned Adam about this from the very beginning (Genesis 2:17), and it is still the case today: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). So what about those who came into contact with someone who had died? There were rules about coming into contact with mildew and leprosy, and death was not an exception.

While the people were still living at the foot of Mount Sinai and Moses was still bringing the law to them, a simple explanation of what to do about contact with a dead body was given. They were to be sent outside the camp (Numbers 5:2-4). This, we will learn would be for seven days (Numbers 19:11, but see also Numbers 12:14-15). But was “outside the camp” little more than a penalty box? Could they just return when the sun went down on the seventh day and their week was up? No. There was to be a special ritual washing.

The verses before us give the recipe for the water of this washing. There were also other items involved, each one associated in some way either with cleansing, death (or blood), and with sacrifice.

First, the heifer. A heifer is a young but grown female cow that has not given birth to a calf. She was chosen for her red color, perhaps because red is the color of blood, but we might also note that aduma, “red,” was also the term “adam,” man. This heifer was also required to have never done any work under a yoke; that is, she had never been used by anyone. She would be used only for this.

The heifer was not killed in the way that animals were killed for sacrifice. She was taken outside the camp and simply slaughtered. All of her was burned, including most of the blood, except for a little that was sprinkled toward the sanctuary.

The other items were used in other cleansing rituals, for cleansing after leprosy (Leviticus 14:1-6, along with two birds), or to purify a house after it was cleansed from mildew (Leviticus 14:45-53, also with two birds). Perhaps the color of the scarlet wool or yarn reminded the worshipers of blood or sin (Isaiah 1:18). Hyssop, a branchy plant that grows as a local weed (1 Kings 4:33), had been used to paint the lamb’s blood on the door frames at the first Passover (Exodus 12:22). Cedar would be plentiful later on through trade with Lebanon (1 Kings 5:8), and was sometimes used as one extreme of plant life where hyssop was the other (1 Kings 4:33), but it never grew in Israel or in the deserts to the south. I agree with those who think that the word is used here the way we use the word “pine,” for a softwood tree of some kind. If this is right, I think that the most likely candidate should be the juniper, a small evergreen tree that grows like a shrub when it can’t grow like a tree. It had to be a kind of evergreen available in the wilderness, and either juniper or a more ambiguous “pine tree” makes the best sense. Later in the prophets, finding a true cedar in the wilderness was a miraculous blessing, like sudden springs or pools of water (Isaiah 41:19).

At the end of this passage, these other items are thrown onto the fire along with the slaughtered heifer. The fire completely consumed these things until they were nothing but ashes. The use of these ashes will be the subject of the verses that follow.

The use of hyssop here was picked up by David, who said, “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7). David is not talking at all about the Passover use of hyssop, but he is picking up the image of this hyssop in the slaughter and burning of the red heifer. The hyssop in the heifer ceremony allowed the Israelite who had come into contact with death (a body or a bone) to re-enter the community after seven days. David says so much more! David asks God to spatter him with hyssop so that he will be clean of his sin. Cleansing from sin means, still to this day, cleansing from the results and consequences of sin. Sin sentences us to death. As Walther says in his “Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel,” while “the devil holds you in a single sin, you are not yet a proper subject for the gospel to operate on; only the Law must be preached to you” (p. 17). In other words, until the law has done its work and made me despair of ever escaping from hell, and I turn to God in terror, crying out “Have mercy on me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13), then the soil of my heart is not ready for the healing gospel. But when I am afraid and contrite, the gospel comes, the gospel in word and in sacrament, and spatters me with the washing of Christ’s blood. The Israelite waiting to get back into the camp on account of death prefigures the dead Christian waiting for the Savior to call him from the grave, to enter into the community of heaven.

So what the Israelites did so deliberately, so methodically, and so very mechanically, was to show us what Christ would do. We have been chosen “for sprinkling by his blood” (1 Peter 1:2); he has freed us from sin and death by his blood (Revelation 1:5), and that same blood “cleanses our consciences” (Hebrews 9:14) so that we may live and not die, and serve God with a pure heart.

A heifer, a cow, slowly burning to ashes, must have smelled awful. The hide, the intestines, the four stomachs—I can hardly bring myself to imagine the stench. Anyone who thinks it would smell like a roasting steak has the wrong thing in mind. But Christ was made to suffer and die in an even more horrible and disgusting way. “It was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer” (Isaiah 53:9); he was despised (Isaiah 53:3); and he was stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted (Isaiah 53:4). Like the other criminals, the intention of the Romans was that Jesus and the others would be “thrown out; their dead bodies would send up a stench, and the mountains would be soaked with their blood” (Isaiah 34:3). Jesus allowed all this to happen so that we would be released from sin’s consequences, from the condemnation of hell, and from the otherwise relentless grip of the tomb. We have been set free by the blood of the holy Son of God. We have a place with him, a place prepared for us, forever.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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