Numbers 19 is the heart of the book of Numbers, as Leviticus 16 is for the book of Leviticus. The sin offerings in Leviticus aim to restore a relationship. It’s about things that come out from ourselves. In Numbers it’s all about what we meet in our going through the wilderness. We are in danger of being defiled from the outside. We are called to “to keep oneself unstained by the world” (Jam 1:27) and to “cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit” (2Cor 7:1). Staining, contamination happens when we come into contact with death. How this happens is not directly relevant.
We cannot always prevent defilement, but we are responsible for having ourselves cleansed. For this God gives the purification water. The preparation of that water is described in this chapter to impress us with what it takes to become clean.
1 - 2 The Unblemished Red Heifer in Which Is No Defect
1 Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 2 “This is the statute of the law which the LORD has commanded, saying, ‘Speak to the sons of Israel that they bring you an unblemished red heifer in which is no defect [and] on which a yoke has never been placed.
The statute of the law is not only given to Moses, but to Moses and Aaron together. That shows how important this statute is. The Israelites must bring a heifer. They have to select that heifer. This means that they must deal with it. For them the heifer is also meant, in some cases they need it. The performance is given to Eleazar in verse 3. Everyone is involved.
It must be a “red heifer”. It is a female animal, possibly because the female sex gives birth, or bears fruit. Other offerings never mention a color. A red heifer is rare. The red heifer, like the offerings in Leviticus, speaks of the Lord Jesus. As Man the Lord Jesus is Son “of Adam” (Lk 3:38). Adam means ‘earth’, or ‘red earth’. So the red color points at His Mankind. Red is also the color of the blood. The Lord Jesus became Man. “Since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same” (Heb 2:14) in order to pour out His blood. Only through His bloodshed can there be forgiveness (Heb 9:22).
It must also be a perfect heifer, a heifer without defect. Everything about and in the Lord Jesus is perfect. From Him is written: “Who knew no sin” (2Cor 5:21), “Who committed no sin” (1Pet 2:22) and “in Him there is no sin” (1Jn 3:5). Not only has He not sinned, but everything in Him is perfectly directed toward God. By this He is a complete pleasure to God. His walk on earth is perfect. Only He can say: “Which one of you convicts Me of sin?” (Jn 8:46a). That is in contrast to our often imperfect walk.
Also, there must never have been a yoke on the heifer. This means that the Lord Jesus never let himself be led in his life by anything or anyone but the will of his Father. The principle of his life on earth is: “I have come to do Your will” (Heb 10:7,9). He has never been influenced by the flattery or threats of any man or the devil. The yoke called “My yoke” by the Lord Jesus (Mt 11:29) speaks of His complete, voluntary surrender to the Father’s will.
3 - 5 The Heifer Outside the Camp
3 You shall give it to Eleazar the priest, and it shall be brought outside the camp and be slaughtered in his presence. 4 Next Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle some of its blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times. 5 Then the heifer shall be burned in his sight; its hide and its flesh and its blood, with its refuse, shall be burned.
The heifer is not sacrificed and does not come on the altar. She is slaughtered and burned. Eleazar does not slaughter the heifer himself. Nor is it a question of substitution, not of the reconciliation work done on the cross for the benefit of the sinner. The red heifer is not about removing sin, but about removing the defilement caused by the touch of death as a symbol of sin.
The slaughter and burning of the red heifer is done only once. It is not repeated and thus symbolizes the eternal power of the work of the Lord Jesus. That it is not repeated is a big difference with all other sacrifices. That is because this is about the purification water in the event of defilement.
It is not necessary to slaughter a new red heifer for every defilement. It is about maintaining the relationship with God and restoring when there has been contact with sin. The purification water is there for every Israelite and for every defilement that can be caught during the whole wilderness journey.
Like the sin offering, the red heifer must be brought outside the camp, away from God’s presence. It emphasizes the horror God has of sin. Then the value of the blood is emphasized. We are determined by the value of the blood when we see how it is sprinkled seven times in the direction of the tent of meeting. The direction in which the blood is sprinkled indicates that defilement is not only a personal matter, but also affects the whole.
The complete consuming of the sacrifice, the burning to ashes, indicates God’s total judgment of sin. When it comes to sin, there is nothing God can spare, nothing that has any attraction for Him. Ashes speaks of a completely frantic judgment.
6 Cedar Wood, Hyssop and Scarlet
6 The priest shall take cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet [material] and cast it into the midst of the burning heifer.
While the sacrifice is consumed by the fire, some more objects are thrown into the fire. They too are consumed by fire, they perish in judgment. Cedar wood stands for man’s natural greatness and hyssop for his natural smallness (1Kgs 4:33a). Both of them fell into the judgment of Christ. Scarlet speaks of earthly glory (2Sam 1:24). That glory cannot exist for God either. These three objects are also found with the cleansing of the leper (Lev 14:4).
If we have defiled ourselves, it is because we have come into contact with the spirit and behavior of the world. We have come under the influence of the great or the small that arouses admiration in the world. But everything for which the world has admiration is reprehensible to God. If we have been admiring or possibly even longing for it, we should be cleansed of it. We must become aware that these things have come to an end in the judgment that has passed over the Lord Jesus. This awareness happens when the purification water is applied.
7 - 8 Cleansing
7 The priest shall then wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward come into the camp, but the priest shall be unclean until evening. 8 The one who burns it shall also wash his clothes in water and bathe his body in water, and shall be unclean until evening.
Being busy with the work of the Lord Jesus in view of the horror of sin before God requires cleansing. Everyone who is involved in it will feel his own uncleanness. There will be a desire to reconcile the behavior – of which clothing speaks – and its whole existence – his body – with God’s presence in the camp.
After his cleansing, the priest returned to the camp. But even then he is unclean until the evening. The awareness of who we are in ourselves, in the light of the complete judgment which the Lord Jesus had to undergo for this, is not a thing from one moment to the other. It is a sign of lightness when we think it works like this.
This is not about our position in Christ for God. In Christ we are a new creation and perfect, without any defect. Here it is about our practice. Then it is necessary to realize who we are in ourselves, so that we may live close to the Lord Jesus to be preserved from defilement and not dishonor Him.
The priest does not slaughter the heifer himself. It happens in his sight (verse 5), while another person does the actions. When that work is done, the man who has been busy with the heifer must also wash his clothes and himself and is also unclean until the evening. The same applies to him as to the priest.
9 - 10 The Ashes of the Heifer
9 Now a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place, and the congregation of the sons of Israel shall keep it as water to remove impurity; it is purification from sin. 10 The one who gathers the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening; and it shall be a perpetual statute to the sons of Israel and to the alien who sojourns among them.
Yet another person is concerned with the ashes of the heifer. The ashes are deposited outside the camp, and are stored there in a clean place, to be used for the preparation of the purification water. Only death can remove the defilement caused by death. The ashes speaks of the perfect sacrifice of Christ by which conscience is cleansed: “For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, 14how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Heb 9:13-14).
The man who has been especially busy with the ashes must also wash his clothes and is also unclean until the evening. Whoever occupies himself with the work of the Lord Jesus for sin in whatever aspect of it, must cleanse himself. Dealing with sin means by definition that one is defiling oneself.
The possibility of removing impurity is there not only for the Israelite, but also for the alien. The sacrifice of the Lord Jesus in its value and application is not to be limited to one nation.
11 - 13 Defilement and Removing Impurity
11 ‘The one who touches the corpse of any person shall be unclean for seven days. 12 That one shall purify himself from uncleanness with the water on the third day and on the seventh day, [and then] he will be clean; but if he does not purify himself on the third day and on the seventh day, he will not be clean. 13 Anyone who touches a corpse, the body of a man who has died, and does not purify himself, defiles the tabernacle of the LORD; and that person shall be cut off from Israel. Because the water for impurity was not sprinkled on him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is still on him.
Touching a corpse causes at least seven days of impurity for the Israelite. A corpse stands for the death that came into the world through the sin of man. Touching death must remind a member of God’s people that he himself is the cause of death in the world. Death and sin belong together, they are inextricably linked (Rom 6:23a). Neither of them belong to God. God cannot tolerate them in His presence. Whoever has come into contact with it must be cleansed to be with God and have fellowship with Him. This is provided by the purification water, the preparation of which we have just seen.
There are two phases in cleansing. It should be borne in mind that in Christendom it is not about literal days, but about a certain period that is necessary for the spiritual work in the soul. The cleansing water should be applied on the third day. Three full days are needed to realize the defilement. It often takes time before we realize that we have defiled ourselves. A quick confession is not proof of a profound work in the soul. Sometimes there is a direct insight into it, but it takes a while before we realize its depth and we realize that cleansing and forgiveness are necessary.
God wants us to reflect on what happened. Our hearts will become painfully aware that, despite redemption and atonement, they have again been defiled and stained by a sin, a sin for which Christ has suffered. Even if only for a moment, we have been pleased with something that has caused His suffering. These may be a little thing that may remind us in the distance of death, like a bone (verse 16), but for God is connected to death. We have forgotten this suffering for sin and have been light-hearted with sin. I have dishonored Him again as a believer and made the suffering of the Lord Jesus worse by this sin.
How important it is to look at death as God looks at it. This will make us vigilant not to come into contact with death. Unfortunately, we don’t always escape it and sometimes we’re inattentive. That doesn’t make the matter for God any different. The impossibility for us to go through the world without being defiled does not make sin any less defiling. The world is for God one great cemetery (Eph 2:1; 1Jn 5:19).
Should that make us despondent? No! It makes God’s grace all the greater when we see that He has given the means of cleansing for every defilement, no matter how great or small, in Christ’s sacrifice (1Jn 2:1-2). What God wants us to learn is that we not only look at sin in the same way as He does, but also look at Christ’s sacrifice in the same way He does.
The first feeling that a defiled soul tastes is the bitterness that he has sinned both against love and against the holiness of God. That will be the effect of the application of the purification water. With the realization of sin comes also the realization of what has happened to the Lord Jesus for that sin from God’s side. Then this bitter feeling – and this is probably the meaning of the second sprinkling on the seventh day (verse 19) – will turn into deep joy through the consciousness of the love and great grace of the Lord Jesus. On the seventh day, that is, after a complete period, – the number seven speaks of completeness – there is again “the joy of Your salvation” (Psa 51:12) and the restoration of the pleasure of fellowship.
A clear example of the third and seventh days of cleansing can be seen when Peter has denied the Lord Jesus. Peter experiences the third day as the bitterness of his denial got him (Lk 22:61-62). He also experiences the seventh day, the restoration of fellowship through and with the Lord by a charcoal fire at the sea of Tiberias (Jn 21:15-17).
14 - 22 Various Forms of Defilement
14 ‘This is the law when a man dies in a tent: everyone who comes into the tent and everyone who is in the tent shall be unclean for seven days. 15 Every open vessel, which has no covering tied down on it, shall be unclean. 16 Also, anyone who in the open field touches one who has been slain with a sword or who has died [naturally], or a human bone or a grave, shall be unclean for seven days. 17 Then for the unclean [person] they shall take some of the ashes of the burnt purification from sin and flowing water shall be added to them in a vessel. 18 A clean person shall take hyssop and dip [it] in the water, and sprinkle [it] on the tent and on all the furnishings and on the persons who were there, and on the one who touched the bone or the one slain or the one dying [naturally] or the grave. 19 Then the clean [person] shall sprinkle on the unclean on the third day and on the seventh day; and on the seventh day he shall purify him from uncleanness, and he shall wash his clothes and bathe [himself] in water and shall be clean by evening. 20 ‘But the man who is unclean and does not purify himself from uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly, because he has defiled the sanctuary of the LORD; the water for impurity has not been sprinkled on him, he is unclean. 21 So it shall be a perpetual statute for them. And he who sprinkles the water for impurity shall wash his clothes, and he who touches the water for impurity shall be unclean until evening. 22 Furthermore, anything that the unclean [person] touches shall be unclean; and the person who touches [it] shall be unclean until evening.’”
In this section different forms of defilement are mentioned. The first is by a death in a tent. A tent represents the private sphere, what is happening in our house. Death can suddenly enter there. This can happen, for example, by a manifestation of the flesh in something that is said or done. We sometimes say or do things there that are heard and seen by our wife or our children and that negatively influence them. Or we bring things into the house like magazines, books, television, internet, where we can distinguish what defiles, but our children can’t.
A tent can also be applied at a local church. Here too, death can enter suddenly through the manifestation of the flesh in something that is said or done. All are defiled by it.
An open vessel is open to defilement. If death has entered, in whatever form, open vessels will be affected. As examples in the application of open vessels we can think of children, young converts, weak believers, who are all receptive to the wrong.
The field looks at the public sphere, our activities in the world. Killed with the sword points to violence. This spirit of violence can also sometimes characterize us. Think of violent language. This language defiles us. If we react aggressively, we have touched a corpse or something like it.
The bones of a human being, a bone, represents something that reminds us of the distance of death. It is the picture of a generally accepted behavior, in which the thought of the sin has completely disappeared into the background. A lie for good must be possible, the figures must be filled in slightly differently to give a rosier picture than the reality is, we should not make a big deal of doing that.
Without being guilty ourselves of using dirty or violent language, we can also hear language that defiles us. We can also simply end up in a way of thinking that we no longer realize it is connected with death. In both cases we have to cleans ourselves. We must engage with the Lord Jesus and His work by reading God’s Word. Then we will see wherein we have defiled ourselves, confess our sin and receive the certainty of forgiveness. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1Jn 1:9).
The touching of a grave also defiles. A grave can look beautiful, but inside it is dead and cold. The Lord Jesus thus describes the Pharisees (Mt 23:27). In each of us there is a Pharisee. We can easily pretend to be more beautiful than we are. We use flattering language when we speak to someone, but in our hearts we wish that person all but. If we recognize this, we must be cleansed.
Sometimes we come into contact with such people without knowing it. Then we will be defiled and we need to be cleansed. In practical terms, this is only possible if we become aware of it. It may be that we don’t immediately realize it, but we still feel that something is not right in what we have heard or seen. Therefore it is good to say it with David and to pray: “Who can discern [his] errors? Acquit me of hidden [faults]“ (Psa 19:12).
For cleansing, the ashes from the burned heifer has to be taken. The ashes must be put in a vessel. Then flowing water must be poured onto it. This suggests the following in the picture. The Spirit of God applies the suffering of Christ to the soul through the living Word of God. In this way the soul regains the certainty that sin and all that is of the old man and the world has been disposed of through the atoning death of Christ.
A clean man must apply the water. This is a picture of us as brothers and sisters helping each other to apply this water. To be able to help others, there must be no sin in our lives. We cannot always solve impurity in our lives ourselves. Sometimes it is desired, sometimes even commanded, to confess the sin to others (Jam 5:16). It is a privilege to benefit from the spiritual service of others.
Whoever refuses to let this water sprinkle on him, whoever does not ask for it, remains unclean and shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly (verse 20). Every sin, even the slightest sin, from which we do not let (or allow) to be cleansed, will lead us to destruction. On the way to destruction we will also drag others along. Hence, a person who does not repent of sin must be removed from among the church (1Cor 5:13b). It is not sin that becomes fatal to us, but the failure to apply the means of cleansing that God has given us.
The clean man is not better. He must use hyssop to apply the water (cf. Exo 12:22). This means that he must deal with the unclean in humility, “in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal 6:1). David asks for such a man (Psa 51:7). The flowing or living water, the Word of God, and the ashes, the proof that the sacrifice has been consumed, are the means of cleansing and not the knowledge or insight of the clean man. The clean man must know the Word of God to use the right text and he must know the work of the Lord Jesus to point out the right aspect.
The water must also be applied to the tent and all who are in it. If there has been defilement, everyone consciously or unconsciously involved must also be brought under the power of the purification water. Let us be glad when someone comes with the Word of God and presents to us the ashes of the red heifer, that is to say, the complete consuming of the Lord Jesus for sin, so that we may be cleansed from attached defilement.
The clean man should also cleanse himself. To help others to confess, to hear the sins of others, defiles. Any contact with sin and what is necessary to cleanse it makes one unclean. Therefore he must wash his clothes, that is, he must place his conduct in the light of God’s Word, so that nothing of the sin with which he had to occupy himself will attach to him.