The events in Israeli politics and the continued aggression from Gaza and the coronavirus in the background of all this inside and outside total mess in our region is a good background for dealing with the Torah portion of this coming Sabbath.
This week’s reading is on the first Sabbath of the Hebrew month of Tammuz (the name is Babylonian and it is the name of one of the worst idols in the ancient Middle East). The modern Hebrew calendar is imported from the Babylonian Exile after 586 B.C.E.
The reading is Parashat Chukat, Numbers 19:1–22:1. From the prophets, the Haftarah is from Judges 11:1-33. From the New Testament, we are reading John 3:1-21.
I am tempted to teach from the Torah because there are a few very important teachings in this Torah portion that have important significance for the New Testament. I am tempted to teach from the Haftarah of Judges 11 because it has the story of one of the most fascinating judges, Jephthah, the Gileadite. Gileadite means that he comes from the Gilead. The rich agricultural east side of the Jordan River.
I remember well a song that we used to sing in church when I was in South Georgia in 1962-64:
“There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead. To heal the sin-sick soul. Sometimes I feel discouraged. And deep I feel the pain. In prayers the holy spirit. Revives my soul again. There is a balm in Gilead. To make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead. To heal the sin-sick soul.”
The lyrics of this hymn immediately remind me of the judge, Jephthah, who took an oath that he would sacrifice the first thing that comes out to greet him when he returned home, if he wins the battle. He never imagined that the first “thing” that would come to greet him would be his daughter.
Nothing could make Jephthah not keep his oath to the Lord. There was no balm in Gilead to heal Jephthah’s grief after his great victory over the enemy.
The Torah portion has two great stories that have great implications for me personally and I hope for you too. The first narrative that I would like to discuss from the Torah portion is the interesting practice with the Red Heifer. You might not realize that one of the models that the writer of the book of Hebrews applies to Yeshua our Messiah is the Red Heifer.
The writer of the book of Hebrews takes the Red Heifer and the practices that the Torah applies to it and applies it to Yeshua and takes this, and applies it to the disciples of Yeshua in the First Century, and I believe that it also applies to us. Here is the text from Hebrew 13: 9-15:
“Do not be carried about with various and strange doctrines. For it is good that the heart be established by grace, not with foods which have not profited those who have been occupied with them. 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 13:9-15 [NKJV]
Notice that the only sacrifice that is offered, that no one eats from, is the Red Heifer. The only sacrifice that is offered outside the camp is the Red Heifer. The only sacrifice that can declare the leper clean was burned outside the camp, outside the gate of the city.
The point of the writer of Hebrews is that Yeshua was sacrificed outside the gate of the city and outside the camp (socially and politically) and His disciples also must understand that there is no purification and forgiveness of sins left in the city (Hebrews was written just at the eve of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.).
Yeshua’s place and His crucifixion was outside the camp outside of the city gate of Jerusalem like the Red Heifer. An interesting text is found in the Talmud about the Red Heifer dated to just after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of Jerusalem.
“A gentile asked Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, ‘These rituals that you do, they seem like witchcraft! You bring a heifer, burn it, crush it up, and take its ashes. [If] one of you is impure from exposure to a dead body[the highest type impurity], 2 or 3 drops are sprinkled on him, and you declare him pure?!’ He [Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai] said to him, ‘Has a restless spirit ever entered you?’ He said to him, ‘No!’ ‘Have you ever seen a man where a restless spirit entered him?’ He said to him, ‘Yes!’ Then he [Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai] said to him, ‘And what did you do for him?’ He said to him, ‘We brought roots and made them smoke beneath him, and pour water and it flees.’ He said to him, ‘Your ears should hear what leaves from your mouth! The same thing is true for this spirit, the spirit of impurity, as it is written, (Zachariah 13:2 [NKJV]) “I will also cause the prophets and the unclean spirit to depart from the land.” They sprinkle upon him purifying waters, and it [the spirit of impurity] flees.’ After he left, our rabbi’s students said, ‘You pushed him off with a reed. What will you say to us?’ He said to them, ‘By your lives, a dead person doesn’t make things impure, and the water doesn’t make things pure. Rather, God said, “I have engraved a rule, I have decreed a decree (chukah chakakti, gezeira gazarti), and you have no permission to transgress what I decreed, as it says ‘This is a chok (rule) of the Torah.’”’” – Midrash Rabbah Numbers 19:8
This text from the rabbinical material is interesting because it is an event that took place very close to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai actually is doing the same thing that Paul did – spiritualized the commandment and made it practicable anywhere in the world, even without the Temple.
The major change of attitude of Rabbi Yochanan is forced by the reality that the Temple is no longer, and now the “touching a dead person doesn’t make you impure, and the water of the ashes of the Red Heifer does not make things pure. The Torah that is engraved in your heart is what matters more than all the rituals.”
The third point from the Torah portion is also connected with Yeshua our Lord. It is the cure for the unfaithfulness of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai and the stopping of the plague of the snakes in the wilderness. The cure was a brass snake that was lifted up and those who looked on that brass snake were cured from the snake bites and lived.
This story is the model of the idea that Isaiah states and connects to the Messiah:
“Behold, My Servant shall deal prudently; He shall be exalted and extolled and be very high. Just as many were astonished at you, So His visage was marred more than any man, And His form more than the sons of men; So shall He ]sprinkle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths at Him; For what had not been told them they shall see, And what they had not heard they shall consider.” – Isaiah 52:13-15 [NKJV]
The cross reference to this text is in the New Testament in John 3:14-15:
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:14,15 [NKJV]
These days of so much hate and so much disorder and false accusations between our politicians, all of Israel needs to remember the plague of the snakes in the wilderness and God’s cure of that plague with such a crazy instrument, the snake made from brass, and lifted up high on a tall rod, so that people could see it and be cured.
What we must realize is that a snake wrapped around a cup or a rod is the symbol of Asclepius, the Greek and Egyptian God of healing and medicine. God used something that these liberated slaves were familiar with to impress them enough so as to believe in this strange cure because He said so! Yeshua becomes the fulfillment of that brass snake that in the days of King Hezekiah becomes an idol that Hezekiah has to take out of the Temple and destroy.
We have a good thing from God that people took and made an idol of it. I fear that sometimes Christians have done the same thing with the Living Son of God, Yeshua our Messiah. They lifted Yeshua on the cross and many Christians believe in Yeshua on the cross and they don’t cherish this Galilean Jew, our Savior, to come off the cross because they know that if He is off the cross He is going to use His foot and apply it to many of the Christian leaders on their behind with formidable force.
You can see, my dear brothers and sisters, how important it is to relate to the Torah and the prophets and the New Testament and how interconnected they are because they are all a revelation of God’s Holy Spirit for our instruction and correction and inspiration to do what is good and holy and right and beneficial for our lives.
This article originally appeared on Netivyah and is reposted with permission.