Purification of the Hebrew Community

A print from the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustration. (Image: Philip De Vere/Wikimedia)

This week’s Torah reading is full of very interesting and very important teachings. The reading is from a portion called Chukat – Numbers 19:1-22:1. It is not a very long reading, but it has some very important issues.

From the Prophets the reading is from Judges 11:1-33. From the New Testament the normal reading in many congregations of Jewish disciples of Yeshua comes from The Gospel of John 3:10-22. I will comment in this prayer list from both John 3, and also bring in a more appropriate reading from Hebrews chapter 13.

Numbers 19 starts with one of the most mysterious ceremonies and strangest sacrifices. God commands Moses:

“Now the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, ‘This is the ordinance of the law which the Lord has commanded, saying: “Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring you a red heifer without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which a yoke has never come.”’” – Numbers 19:1–2 [NKJV]

Right from the beginning of this text there are some different and unique commands. First off, Moses and Aaron are commanded to ask the children of Israel to bring a red heifer without blemish, a new one that has not been used for work.

The text does not make things easy. The children of Israel are to bring a red heifer, a red cow. The text indicates that the whole cow ought to be red and not one brown or black or white spot can be on this cow. The whole beast is to be completely red.

Then who from the children of Israel is responsible to find and to bring such a rare cow that is totally red and has never been used for work, a totally new but mature cow that is red?

It would be hard to produce such a cow of red color without a blemish, a perfect red cow.

“You shall give it to Eleazar the priest, that he may take it outside the camp, and it shall be slaughtered before him; and Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger, and sprinkle some of its blood seven times directly in front of the tabernacle of meeting. Then the heifer shall be burned in his sight: its hide, its flesh, its blood, and its offal shall be burned.” – Numbers 12:3-5 [NKJV]

The red cow will be given to Eleazar the priest and he will take it outside the camp of Israel, and someone else will slaughter this red cow, and the priest will take some of the blood of this red cow and return back to the camp and sprinkle seven time with his finger directly in front of the tabernacle of meeting.

The red cow shall be burned fully with the hide, and flesh, blood, and offal (excrement).

“Then the priest shall wash his clothes, he shall bathe in water, and afterward he shall come into the camp; the priest shall be unclean until evening. And the one who burns it shall wash his clothes in water, bathe in water, and shall be unclean until evening.” – Numbers 12:7-8 [NKJV]

The men who touch the red cow or deal with her will become unclean. They will have to wash themselves and their clothing and remain unclean until the next morning.

You understand that this red cow and the ashes of this cow are essential for the purification of the children of Israel and of the non-Israelites that are a part of the camp of Israel. This very red cow that is actually for purification, will make a pure person defiled. The same ashes of the same cow will make a pure person impure.

I would like to share with you an interesting rabbinical text from the Talmud related to this issue from just after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 70 AD.

“A certain stranger questioned Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai, ‘These things which you do seem like a kind of sorcery. 93Numb. R. 19:8; PRK 4:7; PR 14:14. You bring a heifer, burn it, pound it, and take its ashes. Then [when] one of you is defiled by a corpse, they sprinkle two or three drops on him, and you say to him, “You are clean.”’ He said to him, ‘Have you ever had a bad spirit of madness enter you?’ He told him, ‘No.’ He said to him, ‘Perhaps you have seen someone into whom a bad spirit has entered?’

He told him, ‘Yes.’ He said to him, ‘So what did you do for him?’ He said to him, ‘They bring roots and burn them beneath him. Then they sprinkle water on [the spirit], and it flees.’ He said to him, ‘Let your ears hear what you are uttering with your mouth. Similarly is this spirit an unclean spirit.

Thus it is stated (in Zechariah 13:2), “and I will also remove the prophets and the unclean spirit from the land.” They sprinkle the purifying water upon him, and he flees.’ After the gentile had left, [R. Johanan’s] disciples said to him, ‘Our master, you repelled this one with a [mere] reed [of an answer]. What have you to say to us?’ He said to them, ‘By your lives, a corpse does not defile, nor does a heifer purify, nor does water purify. Rather, the Holy One, blessed be He, has said, “I have enacted a statute for you. I have issued a decree, [and] you are not allowed to transgress against my decree.”

Thus it is written (in Numbers 19:2), “This is the statute of the Torah.” And for what reason are all the sacrifices male and female, while that one is [only] female? 94PRK 4:8. R. Ayyevu said, ‘It is comparable to the son of a female slave who defiled a king’s palace. 95Lat.: praetorium Gk.: praitoriom. The king said, “Let his mother come and clean up the excrement.” Similarly has the Holy One, blessed be He, said, “Let a heifer come and atone for the incident of the [golden] calf.”’” – Midrash Tanchuma, Chukat 8

This text is an extremely important witness of several principles of great importance to those of us who believe in Yeshua as the messiah.

Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai is one of the most important rabbis in the first century AD. He is one of the three that predicted the destruction of the temple in the year 30 AD. The same time that Yeshua predicted the fall of Jerusalem before the crucifixion. Now that the temple is destroyed and the whole old system of sacrifice is obsolete he has to give a rational answer. His answer is amazing. It is the same position that the writer of the book of Hebrews presents in chapters 9-10. However the more amazing is that the book of Hebrews presents Yeshua as the red heifer that can only purify our sins and impurities outside the camp. Here is the text from Hebrews chapter 13:

“We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come. Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name. ” – Hebrews 13:10–15 [NKJV]

This is a text of extreme importance that I fear has been neglected because it has not been connected with the text of Numbers chapter 19. The only sacrifice to God commanded to be burned outside the camp is the red heifer.

The writer connects Yeshua as the ultimate red heifer that can purify our sins and impunity. Hallelujah!

This article originally appeared on Netivyah and is reposted with permission.