The Ordinance of the Red Heifer

Reviewing the first four books of the Bible, we may say that: Genesis speaks of God’s electing grace.

Exodus expounds redemption through the blood and divine power. Leviticus reveals the work of the priest in sacrifice and worship. Numbers describes the wilderness testing of the people of God.

The book of Numbers is an historical record of the movements of the people of Israel in the wilderness in their journeys from Mount Sinai to the plains of Moab, opposite Jericho, prior to their entrance into the promised land of Canaan. It is a sad record. The first ten chapters outline the divine order of the camp, with the tabernacle in the centre and the twelve tribes and the Levites gathered around it, each tribe in a precise position as God had commanded. A census is taken of all the able fighting men from 20 years old and upward, excluding the Levites. The number given is 603,550. If we take into account the women and children, the total number of those that came out of Egypt must have been around two million. Yet, at the end of the journey, some thirty-eight years later, there were only two survivors of the original number, Joshua and Caleb, the men of faith and courage. All the others died in the wilderness. The reasons for this are recorded in chapters 11 to 20. It is a tragic story.

First there was complaining and murmuring, 11. 1-3. Then there was the rejection of the divinely provided manna and the craving for the luxurious diet of Egypt, 11. 4-35. This was followed by the crisis at Kadesh-Barnea, chs. 13 and 14, caused by the great sin of unbelief in the encouraging report of Joshua and Caleb. They had emphasized that God was able to give them victory over their enemies in entering the land of promise. As a result the sentence of death was passed by God upon that whole generation except the two faithful spies, 14. 23,29,32ff. From that point on, the section of Numbers that records the desert wanderings, 15, 1-19, 22, describes God’s hand of disciplinary judgement upon His people. After the Korah, Dathan and Abiram rebellion we read of 14,700 dying in the plague. Masses of dead bodies, dying from disease, war or natural causes must have been a common sight to the Israelites in their aimless desert wanderings. This is the sad and sobering background to the fact of ceremonial defilement by contact with the dead and how it must be dealt with. It is described in Numbers 19.

The Ordinance of the Red Heifer

C. H. Macintosh, in his excellent and detailed exposition of the ordinance of the red heifer in his Notes on Numbers, asks the question ‘Why is it that we get this type in Numbers and not in Leviticus? In the first seven chapters of the latter book we have a very elaborate statement of the doctrine of sacrifice; and yet we have no allusion whatever to the red heifer. Why is this?’ The answer he gives is: ‘The red heifer is pre-eminently, a wilderness type. It was God’s provision for defilement by the way, and it prefigures the death of Christ as a purification for sin, to meet our need in passing through a defiling world’. W. Kelly observes ‘What the great atonement day is to the book of Leviticus, the red heifer is to the book of Numbers’.

The Type has a Number of Unique Features

This is the only occasion in the sacrificial offerings that the colour of the sacrificial animal is insisted on. It was to be a red heifer. A female would indicate submission and that it is the bearer of life. God gave the command to Moses and Aaron, but it was the responsibility of Aaron’s son Eleazar to be in charge of the ceremony. The animal was not slain at the altar but outside the camp, the place of the sin offering. The blood was not taken inside the tabernacle, but Eleazar the priest sprinkled some of the blood with his finger directly before the tabernacle of the congregation seven times. All of these minute details must have a spiritual meaning and application which the Holy Spirit can reveal to the exercised soul. Of one thing we can be certain, the blood is the solid foundation of all purification.

The Red Heifer

It was to be without blemish or defect, J. N. Darby. Like the passover lamb it speaks of the absolute perfection and sinlessness of our blessed Lord and Saviour, the spotless One, holy and impeccable. It was to be also an heifer ‘upon which never came yoke*. We know concerning our Lord Jesus that He never bore the yoke of restraint from self-will and sin as every son of Adam’s ruined race does. He appeals to all who would be His disciples to take upon them ‘my yoke’, Matt. 11. 29; the yoke of complete submission to His will, happy freedom indeed from any form of bondage.

The Slaying of the Sacrifice. ‘And ye shall give her unto Eleazar the priest, that he may bring her forth without the camp, and one shall slay her before his face: and Eleazar the priest shall take of her blood with his finger, and sprinkle of her blood directly before the tabernacle of the congregation seven times’, Num. 19. 3-4. All cleansing is based upon a sacrificial death acceptable to God, the virtue of which remained and was available to all. It is significant that it was an unnamed person and not the priest who slew the animal, and that it was done ‘before the face’ of the priest. The location too is important. It was ‘outside the camp’. The ashes also, as a result of the burning, were laid in a clean place ‘without the camp’, v. 9. All of this suggests a sin-offering character of the ritual. Compare John 19. 41-42, the grave in the garden, the sepulchre, in which was never man yet laid.

The sprinkled blood before the tent of meeting is full of significance. The great work of atonement and propitiation was done once-for-all by the shedding of the blood of Christ at Golgotha, prefigured by the blood on the mercyseat on the Day of Atonement, but the daily cleansing of defilement contracted in the wilderness takes place through the efficacy of the once-for-all shed blood at Golgotha and the Spirit’s application of the cleansing water of the word.

The Burning. ‘And one shall burn the heifer in his sight; her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, shall he burn; And the priest shall take cedar wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer. Then the priest shall wash his clothes, and he shall bathe his flesh in water, and afterward he shall come into the camp, and the priest shall be unclean until the even. And he that burneth her shall wash his clothes in water, and bathe his flesh in water, and shall be unclean until the even’, Num. 19.5-8.

It is important to notice that the word for ‘burn’ here is saraph, to consume, reduce to ashes, used of the sin-offering in Leviticus 4, and not olah used of the sweet savour offerings of Leviticus 1. Every part of the sacrificial red heifer was reduced to ashes. This portrays the consuming judgement of God. Christ’s death alone provides the remedy for that death which sin has brought in and which so easily defiles the child of God in this world. Then into the midst of the burning was cast that which represented the two extremes of nature’s glory; a fragment of the lordly cedar of Lebanon, and the lowly hyssop that grew out of a crevice of the wall. Along with this was the scarlet, a symbol of worldly grandeur worn, for example, by the obscene harlot of Revelation 17-18. The three things cast into the fire represent the world and the flesh in all its manifestations. For the believer today it prefigures the great doctrines of Romans 6-7, Galatians 6. 14 and Philippians 3. 4-9.

The Water of Purification. ‘And a man that is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and lay them up without the camp in a clean place, and it shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for a water of separation: it is a purification for sin. And he that gathereth the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even: and it shall be unto the children of Israel, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among them, for a statute for ever’, Num. 19. 9-10. Note the frequency of the terms ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’. They emphasise the seriousness of the whole procedure. A holy God cannot have communion with nor bless an unclean person. The world as a wilderness cannot sustain the divine life the believer has in Christ, but rather multiplies the defilement resulting from contact with death all around him. Note the great disparity between the number of references to ‘death’ as opposed to ‘life’ in Numbers. A variety of forms of defilement through contact with it are given here. The child of God is to avoid what is defiling in all its varying forms and degrees.

Examples of Contamination. (1) Touching the dead body of a man, including one slain by the sword in the open field, w. 11, 16. (2) Touching a bone or grave of a dead man, v. 16. (3) Being present in a tent where a dead body lay, v. 14. Any open vessel in the tent also became defiled. The defilement lasted for seven days. When we consider the approximately two million people that died during the wilderness journeys, it points up the frequency with which ceremonial defilement took place. It involved not only persons but also their homes, their food and cooking utensils.

Procedure for Cleansing, w. 17-22. ‘And for an unclean person they shall take of the ashes of the burnt heifer of purification for sin, and running water shall be put thereto in a vessel: And a clean person shall take hyssop, and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it upon the tent, and upon all the vessels, and upon the persons that were there, and upon him that touched a bone, or one slain, or one dead, or a grave: And the clean person shall sprinkle upon the unclean on the third day, and on the seventh day: and on the seventh day he shall purify himself, and wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and shall be clean at even. But the man that shall be unclean, and shall not purify himself, that soul shall be cut off from among the congregation, because he hath defiled the sanctuary of the Lord: the water of separation hath not been sprinkled upon him; he is unclean. And it shall be a perpetual statute unto them, that he that sprinkleth the water of separation shall wash his clothes; and he that toucheth the water of separation shall be unclean until even. And whatsoever the unclean person toucheth shall be unclean; and the soul that toucheth it shall be unclean until even.’

Practical Application for the Believer Today

The New Testament speaks in no uncertain terms of the character of the world in the last days. It is a duplication of the age before the flood. Violence, corruption and unnatural sex called down the judgement of God. The news media, television, radio, the popular magazines and modern music all cater to the baser instincts of our fallen nature. Day and night our eyes and ears are bombarded by satanic propaganda and suggestion. Our minds and thoughts are constantly assaulted by sinister evil forces. The born again believer is not immune to these polluting infuences. If they are allowed entrance and secretly encouraged in our minds, they can interrupt communion with God, and interfere with our prayers. Through involvement with such things we become morally and spiritually defiled. Like the Israelite in the wilderness we can become unclean and need cleansing. The same can be said of our home life. We must be careful to see that there is nothing in the domestic sphere that would be a stumbling block to our children and loved ones. Questionable literature and critical conversation at the table can be a prime source of contamination.

The subject of sin and its cleansing in the life of the believer is one of the main topics in the ministry, both of our Lord and His apostles. God is holy, and unconfessed sin cannot be tolerated in the life of His people. Our Lord severely castigated the Pharisees for being very punctilious about washing their hands and pots and cups but not so careful about the evil that was in their hearts, Mark 7.5-23. In the upper room, just before the cross, He taught erring Peter and us too the vital lesson of the difference between the bath of regeneration when all our sins are washed away, and the basin with the water and the servant’s towel which are used to cleanse the feet of the disciple soiled from the daily walk. ‘He that is washed all over needs not to wash save his feet, but is wholly clean’, John 13. 10, J. N. Darby.

The apostle John deals with the question of sin in the believer’s life in a very forthright and practical way. He insists that a person who professes to be a Christian and continues to practise sin as a habit of life, is not a true believer. ‘If we say we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin’, 1 John 1. 6-7. All cleansing of sin is based on the abiding efficacy of the precious blood, shed once-for-all on Calvary’s cross. The propitiatory sacrifice of Christ is never to be repeated, Heb. 9. 14, 26; 10. 10-14. The true believer has a tender conscience about sin and defilement in his life. The truth, the water of the word and the indwelling Holy Spirit convict him when he sins or falls into a trap. The removal of the deadly defilements of life is provided for in the practical application of the death of Christ to the believer sensitive to a disturbance of his communion with God. This is typified by the sprinkling on the third and seventh days of the ashes of the red heifer. The basis of forgiveness is the sacrificial death and shed blood of the Saviour. The agent of purification in the believer’s life is the cleansing water of the word applied in power by the Holy Spirit, cf.Psa. 119. 9.