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God’s Word for You

Numbers 19:7-10 Their washing and ours

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Tuesday, October 12, 2021

7 Then the priest will wash his clothes and bathe his flesh in water. Afterward he will come into the camp, and the priest will be unclean until evening. 8 The one who burns the heifer is to wash his clothing in water and bathe his flesh in water. He will remain unclean until evening. 9 A man who is ceremonially clean is to gather up the heifer’s ashes and place them outside of the camp in a clean place. They will be kept for the Israelite congregation to use to make the water for removing impurity. It is a sin offering. 10 The one who gathers the heifer’s ashes is to wash his clothes and be unclean until evening. This will be a permanent regulation for the Israelites and the aliens residing among them.

We have seen that the heifer was slaughtered and burned completely outside the camp along with some pine wood, hyssop sticks and red yard or wool. We won’t find out what to do with the ashes of this fire until verse 17. At this point, we need to stop and consider how the men who came into contact with the animal or the ashes were to be treated, and how they might be able to return to the camp.

  1. The priest. Aaron’s son Eleazar was named in verses 3-4 for this purification, and we can be certain that he was the one who carried it out the first time. But later on, any priest who was one of the Lord’s priests could perform this act. He was to bathe himself. This is one of the many ceremonial washings in the Old Testament that prefigure baptism. It is not truly baptism, but we will examine it more closely below. The priest could re-enter the camp, but since he was ceremonially unclean until sunset, he could not return until evening (sunset). While this isn’t stated this way in this passage, it is clear from such other passages as Deuteronomy 23:10-11: “If one of your men is unclean… he is to go outside the camp and stay there. But as evening approaches he is to wash himself, and at sunset he may return to the camp.”
  2. The one who burns the heifer. This man would have been a Levite, one of the men commanded by God to assist the priests in their work (Numbers 18:2). If they had wondered what kinds of things they would do, this was a good example. This Levite, like the priest, would need to wash himself, and then he could re-enter the camp that evening.
  3. The one who gathers the ashes. This man was another Levite, and like the others, he would need to bathe and then wait until evening.

In what way was their washing like baptism?

  1. Their washing was commanded by God. Likewise, baptism was instituted by Christ, who said, “Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:18).
  2. Their washing was a special washing with water, and not with other fluids or substances (such as the Roman practice of bathing with grit and oil). Baptism is also a special washing with water and no other fluid or substance. John chose his location at Aenon near Salim “because there was plenty of water, and people were constantly coming to be baptized” (John 3:23).
  3. This ceremonial washing showed in an outward way that their contact with sin and uncleanness was washed away and removed from their bodies, whether or not they were physically dirty. In the same way, the Apostle explains that baptism (“that saves you”) is “not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God” (1 Peter 3:21). And of course, baptism is even more than this (Titus 3:5).
  4. Those who were washed in this way were permitted back into God’s community. Those who are baptized are forgiven their sins and are welcomed into God’s heaven, as the Evangelist Mark says: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16).
  5. Those who were to be washed in this way but who rejected the washing were to be cut off from the community: “Whoever fails to purify himself defiles the Lord’s tabernacle. That person must be cut off from Israel. Because the water of cleansing has not been sprinkled on him, he is unclean; his uncleanness remains on him” (Numbers 19:13). Those who are offered baptism but who reject it are rejecting the gospel of the forgiveness of sins, and whoever does not believe will be condemned (Mark 16:16).

These points help us to see that baptism was in some way, a small way, prefigured by this and other ceremonial washings in the Old Testament. However, they are not the same. We would not say of Eleazar, “He was baptized on this day.” In what way was their washing unlike baptism?

  1. The washing which accompanied the red heifer did not remove sin by itself, but required obedience from the one who was washed, that is, the obedience of remaining outside the camp until sunset.
  2. The washing which accompanied the red heifer did not give anything along with it, but baptism gives the forgiveness of sins, as Peter confesses: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38).
  3. The effects of the red heifer washing did not last a lifetime. If Eleazar had gone out a second time, a year later, and again the year after that, to burn another heifer and then another, each time he would have been required to undergo the ritual bath and remain outside the camp until sundown. But baptism is only given once, as Paul says: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5).
  4. The washing after the red heifer was burned did not cover all of the sins of the priests or Levites who were washed, but only those in connection with that event. But baptism washes away all sin, as Paul says about the kindness and love of God our Savior: “He saved us” (Titus 3:5).
  5. The washing in connection with the red heifer was a matter of the law, because it was done through obedience. The washing of baptism is a matter only of the gospel, and involves no obedience in any way. Scripture calls baptism “rebirth” and “being born again” (John 3:3, 3:7). Just as a baby is passive and not active in its birth, so also the one baptized is not obedient, but receives a gift. This is the work of the gospel in us all, as Paul says: “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).  Baptism requires nothing at all from the one who is washed; it is thoroughly passive, as Ananias declared to Paul: “Be baptized and wash your sins away” (Acts 22:12).
  6. The washing in connection with the red heifer was a bath done by the man in question. Eleazar was required to bathe himself. But baptism is a washing that is performed upon us, for everyone who is baptized is baptized by another, just as even Jesus was baptized by John “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).
  7. The washing in connection with the red heifer required that the clothes be thoroughly washed as well as the man. In baptism, there is never any mention of washing clothes, but only the person, as we read about Lydia, her children, and her servants: “She and the members of her household were baptized” (Acts 16:15).

Perhaps there are more points to be made like these. Verse 10 ends with, “This will be a permanent regulation for the Israelites and the aliens residing among them.” Why then is this something we no longer do? Because, as with everything commanded by Moses, the law has been fulfilled by Christ. He “forgave all our sins, having cancelled the written code with its regulations” (Colossians 2:13-14). That is why the tabernacle and the temple are no longer necessary. Furthermore, God warned Solomon, “But if your people turn away and forsake my statutes and my commands which I have given them, and they go to serve and worship other gods, I will uproot them from my soil I have given to them. This house, which I have consecrated to my Name, I will toss away, out of my sight. I will make it proverbial as an object of ridicule among all the peoples” (2 Chronicles 7:19-20, EHV). Is this not precisely what God has done, because that is precisely what the people did?

But even that trespass was used by God. He did not cause it to happen, he did not plan or plot the idolatry of Israel or force them to reject the Messiah when he came. But he had promised the ruin of the temple. Today, the spot where the temple once stood is nothing but a Muslim tourist attraction. This, too, God has used for a purpose, because there is no rival to the forgiveness once offered in the temple. That forgiveness, the slaughter of animals, pointed ahead to Christ. Now Christ has come, and the temple is gone. But we look to Christ with faith and with complete confidence as our salvation, because salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven, Peter said, given to men, by which we must be saved.

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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