God’s Word for You
Numbers 19:11-16 Contact with a body
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, October 13, 2021
We saw in the previous verses that the men who touched the red heifer or its ashes became unclean for a day. Now the Lord explains how different it is for anyone who touches a dead body, whether someone who has just died, someone being buried, or even the bone of someone long dead.
11 Whoever touches the body of a dead person will be unclean for seven days. 12 He is to purify himself with the water on the third day, and he will become clean on the seventh day. But if he does not purify himself on the third day, then he will not become clean on the seventh day. 13 Anyone who touches a dead human body but does not purify himself defiles the Lord’s Dwelling. That person must be cut off from Israel. He is unclean, because he has not sprinkled himself with the water for removing impurity. His uncleanness is still on him.
Here the use of the ashes is hinted at, although the recipe is still a few verses away (Numbers 19:17). The uncleanness would remain for seven days, and on the third day (and seventh, Numbers 19:19) he had to be sprinkled with the water for removing impurity. This was not “holy water” in the way that some denominations think of it. We will talk about “holy water” in tomorrow’s devotion.
14 This is the law when someone dies in a tent: Everyone who comes into the tent and everyone who is in the tent will be unclean for seven days. 15 Every open container without a lid on it is unclean. 16 Anyone in the open countryside who touches someone killed by a sword or someone who has died, or anyone who touches a human bone or a grave, will be unclean for seven days.
Whenever there is a law, there are bound to be questions. What if this? What if that? The Lord answers the way any Middle School teacher would: The rule is “unclean for seven days.” And for every question of “What if,” the patient answer is: “unclean for seven days.” Someone dies in the tent where you happen to be standing? You’re unclean for seven days. Touch a dead body outside? Seven days. You touch, pillage, or bury a dead person? Seven days. Bone from an old grave? Seven days.
More than that: For people outside, there is no caution about coming “close” to a person. If you don’t touch the body, you’re not unclean. If you’re drinking your Big Gulp Soda from Quickie Mart, it’s not unclean, either. However, if someone dies in a tent (or under a roof), it’s a different story. Then, anybody who is in the tent or enters it when the body is there becomes unclean for seven days. And also, a covered container is okay, but any uncovered container is now unclean. Based on other passages, that means that the food or articles inside are unclean. Food or liquid must be poured out, burned or buried, with the exception of seeds (Leviticus 11:37). Clothing, leather, and such things, would need to be washed (Leviticus 11:32). A “hard surface” item (such as your child’s soccer trophy) is fine. But the pot itself, if clay, would be broken (Leviticus 11:33). “A bronze pot,” God told Moses, “is to be scoured and rinsed with water” (Leviticus 6:28). The Levitical exceptions go on to mention things like springs and cisterns (which do not become unclean), and what to do about a non-human carcass. Animals that died apart from food preparation or sacrifice caused a person to be unclean, but only until evening (Leviticus 11:39).
Since these rules no longer apply, we don’t need to worry about them too much, but questions naturally arise. Perhaps it’s clear from most of the references above that Leviticus 11 is a good place to look for laws about this, for those who are curious.
In general, whoever touched the body of a dead person would be unclean for seven days. In ancient times, families took care of their own dead, washing the body, preparing it for burial, and physically burying it. This is still done today in many cultures, and even in the US, if you do not want a stranger to wash the body of your loved one, you can do it yourself, although most people don’t think about this when the time comes. Recall the scene of the men and women preparing the Lord’s body for burial. They willingly came into contact with a dead body. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus took Jesus’ dead body down from the cross. “Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs” (John 19:40). They placed Jesus’ body in a new tomb near the cross. The traditional (and I think correct) place of Jesus’ tomb was just a few yards from the hill of Golgotha, west of the temple. When the women came to anoint his body after the Sabbath, they were ready to touch his body and anoint it with more spices (Luke 23:56; 24:1). Joseph and Nicodemus had willingly made themselves ceremonially unclean, and the women were ready to do that, too.
The women did not become unclean because there was no body when they arrived. He had risen from the dead! (Luke 24:6). But what about Joseph and Nicodemus? Would they have had to wait out their seven days?
Here are what I think are the main points to consider:
1, Jesus had risen from the dead. No dead body = no ceremonial uncleanness. The writer of Kings says nothing at all about Elijah or Elisha becoming unclean when they raised people from the dead (1 Kings 17:22; 2 Kings 4:35).
2, Anyone from Pilate’s court would know that they were the ones who removed Jesus’ body (Mark 15:44-45). At the same time, they would have no reason at all for telling any of the Jews who had taken down the body.
3, Joseph had gone to ask in secret for fear of the council (John 19:38).
4, Nicodemus and Joseph were members of the Sanhedrin (John 3:1; Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50).
5, For the sake of fulfilling the law of Moses, they may have felt or probably did feel obligated to undergo the rites for being ceremonially unclean, so that they would not be “cut off from Israel” (Numbers 19:13).
6, It is permissible for a Christian to observe elements of the law when it may harm the faith of another (1 Corinthians 8:7,11,13).
Looking at these things, I think it is likely and even probable that these two God-fearing men did in fact undergo the full seven-day ritual, but I can’t say that for certain, because this detail isn’t addressed in the holy Scriptures. We can be relieved that we are freed from these things, but not because they seem like an inconvenience. Nothing God commands should be taken as an inconvenience by us, but as a joyful lesson in holiness and righteousness. No, we can be relieved because Christ himself is the end of the law (Hebrews 9:11-13). He has cleansed our consciences “from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14). Praise Jesus, not only for bringing an end to the law, but for bringing an end to the consequences of our sins. Through Jesus we are forgiven, and we are made clean forever.
Pastor Timothy Smith