Numbers 19:1-22 (Part 1) – Red Heifers, Water of Purification, Oh My!

Posted: September 22, 2016 in 04-Numbers
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Numbers 19:1-22 (Part 1 of 3)

The Water of Purification

As Christ followers, we sometimes read the Old Testament and wonder why it is filled with these stories of unclean and clean things. We wonder how that applies to us. How can killing a red heifer without physical defect apply to our daily lives in any way? Atheists, those who loathe God’s Word for whatever their reasons may be, point to things like this as an indication that the Bible is at best good literature but nothing to live your life by. I will have to admit, at first reading, of this passage for this morning, Numbers 19:1-22, that I said to myself, “What am I going to write about this morning?” Then, it hit me.


As J. Ligon Duncan, III (who happens to have been a classmate of my at Furman University back in the early 80’s), writes in his sermon on Numbers 19, and which can be found at, he says,


“…as the children of Israel wandered through the wilderness, death was everywhere. It was everywhere. Death was a standing issue, and so it is a picture of God’s loving, caring concern for His people that He talks with them about how they ought to respond to death. This is especially important in light of the fact that the cultures around them had all manner of wrong responses to death. The cultures around Israel were often involved in the cult of the dead, in the worship of the dead; they would offer food sacrifices to the dead. They would come to the graves of the dead with food and put it there; they would attempt to commune with the dead through occult practices, and God wanted nothing of that in Israel. And so He spends an entire chapter informing the children of Israel of how they need to respond to death. This makes sense because of the context of death in the wilderness. Death was everywhere.”


When we visit this passage twice more in the next two blogs, we will take about the similarities of the water of purification to baptism and the similarities of the red heifer to Christ Himself, but for today. Let’s talk about how God was molding His people through some of these regulations that see archane and, at best, odd to us in the 21st century. This regulation that we have here is about death and dead bodies. In the centuries before Christ, human culture was quite different. Death was everywhere. Sickness caused by handling dead bodies was issue. They did not have the technology for preserving bodies for extended periods of time between death and burial. So there were severe health concerns by allowing persons to come in contact with decomposing bodies. In the wilderness of the desert of the Sinai, what to do with dead bodies was a big concern.


Other cultures glorified death in bizzare ways as Ligon Duncan indicates in the quote of his that I used. They worshiped the dead. They had bizarre rituals when it came to responding to the dead. What we consider the prohibition against tattoos in Deutoronomy has to do with how other cultures handled death. Some cultures would cut themselves, not symbolically but actual, literal cutting of their skin, and paint their bodies as they mourned the death of person they either loved or knew. God did not want His people to participate is this type of worship of death. God wanted His people to have none of that. Ancient Middle Eastern cultures were, as many cultures around the world, obsessed with death – the curiosity of it, the worship of it, developing ancestral myths over it. No wonder! Death was everywhere. The population of our planet did not start growing exponentially until 400-500 years ago with the advent of modern understandings of medicine and health. Before, then, the world’s population was less than 1 billon people right up until the 1700’s when things started exploding. Earth’s population now is estimated at close to 7.4 Billion in 2016 and is projected to be 11.2 Billion in just 150 more years. The world’s population has will have grown eleven-fold between 1700 and 2150. Mind boggling, even with the advances in birth control that we have now that the earth will have 51% more people than now in just 150 years. However, in the cultures of the ancient Middle East the world had to deal with death on a widespread scale on a daily basis. Death and dead bodies were everywhere. So death was easily something that cultures could become obsessed with and how it could develop into a religious thing.


God wanted His people to be a different people. He wanted them to be a nation of priest. He wanted them to be living testaments to the one true and living God. He wanted them to be separate and act differently than the cultures around them. He wanted them to be different. He wanted to be His representatives to the world because it would be through this unique culture of the Israelites that would come the Messiah to the nations. He wanted people of the world to drawn unto God through His people so that they would know the One True God and would be the kingdom of priests who would herald the one true King in the Messiah, Jesus Christ.


Let’s read through this passage while thinking of how God wanted His people to be uncommon in a world that did not know how to handle dead bodies properly and in a world where the cult of death had become a religion:


19 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: 2 “This is a requirement of the law that the Lord has commanded: Tell the Israelites to bring you a red heifer without defect or blemish and that has never been under a yoke. 3 Give it to Eleazar the priest; it is to be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence. 4 Then Eleazar the priest is to take some of its blood on his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the tent of meeting. 5 While he watches, the heifer is to be burned—its hide, flesh, blood and intestines. 6 The priest is to take some cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet wool and throw them onto the burning heifer. 7 After that, the priest must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water. He may then come into the camp, but he will be ceremonially unclean till evening. 8 The man who burns it must also wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he too will be unclean till evening.


9 “A man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and put them in a ceremonially clean place outside the camp. They are to be kept by the Israelite community for use in the water of cleansing; it is for purification from sin. 10 The man who gathers up the ashes of the heifer must also wash his clothes, and he too will be unclean till evening. This will be a lasting ordinance both for the Israelites and for the foreigners residing among them.


11 “Whoever touches a human corpse will be unclean for seven days. 12 They must purify themselves with the water on the third day and on the seventh day; then they will be clean. But if they do not purify themselves on the third and seventh days, they will not be clean. 13 If they fail to purify themselves after touching a human corpse, they defile the Lord’s tabernacle. They must be cut off from Israel. Because the water of cleansing has not been sprinkled on them, they are unclean; their uncleanness remains on them.


14 “This is the law that applies when a person dies in a tent: Anyone who enters the tent and anyone who is in it will be unclean for seven days, 15 and every open container without a lid fastened on it will be unclean.


16 “Anyone out in the open who touches someone who has been killed with a sword or someone who has died a natural death, or anyone who touches a human bone or a grave, will be unclean for seven days.


17 “For the unclean person, put some ashes from the burned purification offering into a jar and pour fresh water over them. 18 Then a man who is ceremonially clean is to take some hyssop, dip it in the water and sprinkle the tent and all the furnishings and the people who were there. He must also sprinkle anyone who has touched a human bone or a grave or anyone who has been killed or anyone who has died a natural death. 19 The man who is clean is to sprinkle those who are unclean on the third and seventh days, and on the seventh day he is to purify them. Those who are being cleansed must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and that evening they will be clean. 20 But if those who are unclean do not purify themselves, they must be cut off from the community, because they have defiled the sanctuary of the Lord. The water of cleansing has not been sprinkled on them, and they are unclean. 21 This is a lasting ordinance for them.


“The man who sprinkles the water of cleansing must also wash his clothes, and anyone who touches the water of cleansing will be unclean till evening. 22 Anything that an unclean person touches becomes unclean, and anyone who touches it becomes unclean till evening.”



What’s my takeaway this morning? Sure, all this seems like weird to us in our 21st century sensibilities but so do third world country practices today to us. Let us not dismiss the deeper messages of this passage getting lost in the surface details. The first thing that I notice here today is that God wanted His chosen people to be different from the world around them. He did not want them to assimilate their practices. He did not want them to start chipping away at His prescriptions for their holiness by assimilating the cultural practices of the world around them.


How relevant is that thought? We as Christians are being threatened on every side today to assimilate the culture’s practices around us. We are being pressured to accept that which is clearly against God’s Word. We are called old-fashioned, ignorant, and intolerant if we do not dive headfirst into accepting that which the culture has accepted as normal and OK. We are to be a kingdom of priests so that the world will be drawn unto Jesus Christ through loving and compassionate interaction with the world around us. However, if you cannot tell any difference between us and the world, what are they going to be drawn to. We can love the world but not participate in its ways. We can love the world by interacting with them and develop relationships with them but not accepting those behaviors of the world as our own. We can love the world by getting to know them right where they are at and leading them to knowledge of Jesus without buying into cultural norms that are clearly against God’s Word. We must love them and not hate them because we should not wish eternal separation from God in eternal damnation on even our worst enemy. Let us be that different. Let us be the difference. Let us be that kingdom of priests who points the way to the cross to a world that desperately needs it.


Amen and Amen.

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