CLEANSING FROM CONTAMINATION CAUSED BY CONTACT WITH DEATH MAINTAINS CLOSE CONTACT WITH A HOLY GOD
The previous chapters in Numbers have already addressed the distinctive roles of the priests and Levites and the protection against usurpers who might be envious of other ministry roles. The protection of the Lord’s sanctuary is critical since a holy God intended to dwell in the midst of His holy elect people. Here the focus is on the need of the people for cleansing and purification whenever they come into contact with death – a frequent problem given the Lord’s discipline of the current generation dying off in the 38-year wilderness wanderings due to their lack of faith. Defilement was a serious concern – especially since the contamination spread to impact the entire community.
Gordon Wenham: The most serious and obvious type of human uncleanness was that caused by death. Anyone who touched a corpse or a human bone or a grave, or entered the tent of a dead man, became unclean (14–16). Furthermore, this uncleanness was contagious: anything the unclean man touched would itself become unclean and infect others (22; cf. Lev. 15). Thus the death of someone in the camp could pollute all those in it, and this would defile the tabernacle of the Lord (13, 20) unless preventive measures were taken. Whenever the holy came in contact with the unclean, sudden death was the result (13, 20; cf. Lev. 7:21; 22:3; cf. Isa. 6:3, 5).
Chapter 18 was concerned with the appointment of the priests and Levites as custodians of the tabernacle to prevent such divine judgment falling on the nation. This chapter deals with the provision of a means to cure the uncleanness of death. Leviticus prescribes two methods of dealing with uncleanness: either washing in water and waiting till evening (11:28, 39–40; 15:16–18), or in more serious cases waiting seven days and then offering a sacrifice (14:10ff.; 15:13ff., 28ff.). Offering a sacrifice was a difficult and expensive procedure, which would have greatly added to the distress of family and friends when someone died. This chapter provides an alternative remedy which marked the seriousness of the pollution caused by death, yet dealt with it without the cost and inconvenience of sacrifice. Instead, those who have come in contact with the dead can be treated with a concoction of water that contains all the ingredients of a sin offering.
Roy Gane: The fact that corpse contamination was considered such a powerful impurity posed a problem for remedying it: The impure person could not come to the sanctuary in order to sacrifice a purification offering, so ritual decontamination had to take place outside the sacred precincts. Also, because priests were to avoid corpse contamination (Lev. 21:1–4, 11), the purification rite needed to be administered by a layperson.
Warren Wiersbe: There are several unique features about this ritual. The animal chosen was not male; it was slain outside the camp, away from the tabernacle and the altar; it was slain by a layman and not a priest; the blood was not caught and poured out before God but burned with the carcass; and the ashes were gathered to be mixed with water and used for ceremonial purification.
Raymond Brown: Four individuals took part in the ceremonial from the time of the heifer’s death to the moment of the offender’s cleansing: the priest who witnessed the death (3–5), the man who burnt the animal (8), the person who stored the ashes (9) and the individual applying the purifying water (18). Although none of these four had encountered a dead human body, their participation in the purifying event contaminated them.
Timothy Ashley: Ch. 19 gives a relatively simple procedure to cleanse the uncleanness of death. Such a procedure would be important not only in the immediate context, but also in coming days when more and more of the older generation would die in the wilderness. It thus becomes a way of making progress toward Canaan for the younger generation, the generation that would still inherit the land, but not until the older generation was dead. This chapter forms a fitting conclusion to the section on the causes and consequences of rebellion in chs. 11–19. Death is the final consequence, but those heirs of the promise may have fellowship with God by following the divinely given procedure here included.
Dennis Cole: Numbers 19 details the ritual purification process that would be continuously available to the people without having to sacrifice an animal every time there was a death in the family, so it facilitates the maintenance of a holy community of faith. Maintenance of purity and sanctity as a reflection of individual and community holiness in separation from the world’s forces is important for all who desire a healthy relationship with a holy God. At this point in the history of revelation, the means of maintaining this relationship included a special ritual process.
I. (:1-10) PREPARATION FOR PURIFICATION –
PROCEDURE FOR MAKING THE CLEANSING WATERS FROM THE ASHES OF THE SLAUGHTERED RED COW
“Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying,”
Ronald Allen: This is a fascinating text that rewards the patient reader. . . The material of this chapter is not congenial to modern Western readers. Many have no understanding of or appreciation for the concept of ritual, and the slaughter of a magnificent animal for the purpose of burning its flesh for ash is repugnant. For such readers the opening words of this verse should have a special importance. The ritual of the cleansing waters is presented here as a direct requirement of God. For all its strangeness, this chapter too presents the righteous works of the Lord.
A. (:2-6) Preparation for Purification Via Sacrifice of a Red Cow
1. (:2-3) Slaughter of the Red Heifer
a. (:2) Costliness of Purity
“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”
2) No Defect
“in which is no defect,”
3) Never Worked
“and on which a yoke has never been placed.”
Raymond Brown: Before any Israelite had become defiled, a costly sacrifice had been offered. The animal was mature and perfect; it had never been used for ploughing, so there was not the slightest blemish on it. A greatly valued economic asset with the potential to produce calves, it could have provided generous amounts of milk, a source of continuing income. Its young life was cut off so that others would not be cut off (13, 20); it died so that unclean people (7, 8, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 19, 20, 21, 22) might be released from their isolating defilement.
Peter Wallace: Find the finest red heifer in all the camp.
– Red – like blood.
– Female – would have been prized for breeding.
– Without blemish – blameless and pure.
– Never yoked – never used for any other purpose.
b. (:3) Conditions for the Slaughter
1) Slaughter Officiated by the Priest
“And you shall give it to Eleazar the priest,”
Dennis Cole: When the qualified cow had been selected, it was then presented to Eleazar, the priest and son of Aaron. Why would Eleazar be chosen instead of Aaron? Several reasons have been suggested. First, Aaron was the high priest, and all caution was taken to ensure that the high priest not become unclean so as to render him unqualified to perform regular ritual activities prescribed for him. The high priest was not to defile himself by going near a corpse, even that of his mother or father (Lev 21:11). Second, this ordinance was directed not only to the present but also to future generations. Aaron was now aging and would soon die in the latter stage of the forty-year wilderness experience (Num 20:22–29). Also this preparation took place outside the camp, the normal realm of uncleanness where persons having skin diseases and other infirmities were remanded. The high priest was prohibited from going outside the sanctuary, lest he potentially return with some unknown or inadvertent impurity (Lev 21:12).
2) Slaughter Removed to a Location Outside the Camp
“and it shall be brought outside the camp”
Raymond Brown: The element of distance from the Tent of Meeting deliberately underlined the essential gap between holiness and defilement, purity and uncleanness. Everything that polluted the community had to be removed from it, so the action deliberately took place away from the holy place. The animal was slaughtered beyond the confines of the camp, in the very place where defiled people must remain until they were thoroughly cleansed.
3) Slaughter Witnessed by the Priest
“and be slaughtered in his presence.”
2. (:4) Sprinkling of the Blood of the Red Heifer
“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.”
3, (:5-6) Sizzling (Burning) of the Red Heifer
a. (:5) Complete Incineration – Including Burning the Blood
“Then the heifer shall be burned in his sight;
its hide and its flesh and its blood, with its refuse, shall be burned.”
Robert Rayburn: Blood is the most potent agent of purification because blood is a symbol of death and purification comes through the death of a substitute.
b. (:6) Complementary Incineration – Involving Burning Other Articles
“And the priest shall take cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet material, and cast it into the midst of the burning heifer.”
David Thompson: The priest was to take cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet material and cast it into the midst of the burning heifer (v. 6). We are not sure why the cedar wood is used; perhaps it is because it is a strong wood that emanates a sweet aroma. Some have speculated that Christ’s cross was made of cedar wood. The hyssop plant is a sweet-smelling plant that often symbolized purification from death. This plant normally grew to a height of a little over a foot and contained pointed leaves and colored flowers. The scarlet or crimson red focuses on the fact that this cleansing comes through the shedding of blood. Without the shedding of blood there is “no forgiveness of sins.” All of these same ingredients were used to cleanse a leper (Lev. 14:4, 6, 48, 51-52).
Eugene Merrill: Cedar was chosen because it is evergreen and aromatic, the hyssop because of its application of the blood at the Exodus (cf. Ps. 51:7; Ex. 12:22), and the scarlet wood because it symbolizes the blood itself.
B. (:7-8) Preparation for Purification Via Cleansing of Participants
1. (:7) Cleansing of the Priest
“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.”
Iain Duguid: In addition to the centrality of blood in this ritual, the other remarkable, even paradoxical feature of this sacrifice was its power to defile the ones preparing and administering it. At the same time as the ashes made the defiled person clean, they also made the ceremonially clean person defiled. From the priest who administered the ritual (v. 7), to the man who burned the animal (v. 8), to the man who gathered the ashes (vv. 9, 10), to the man who sprinkled the water (v. 21), every clean person who touched the ashes was defiled by them. Whoever or whatever they touched in the cleansing process became unclean because of the contagious power of defilement (v. 22). The ashes had to be stored outside the camp so they would not defile the camp by their very presence. It is as if the ashes were a kind of ritual detergent that cleansed the impure person by absorbing their impurity. In the process, though, they themselves became both defiled and defiling.
2. (:8) Cleansing of the One Burning the Red Cow
“The one who burns it shall also wash his clothes in water and bathe his body in water, and shall be unclean until evening.”
C. (:9-10a) Preparation for Purification Via Procedure Regarding the Ashes for the Cleansing Waters
1. (:9a) Procedure for Gathering and Saving the Ashes
“Now a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer
and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place,”
2. (:9b) Procedure for Preparing the Cleansing Waters
“and the congregation of the sons of Israel shall keep it as water
to remove impurity; it is purification from sin.”
Raymond Brown: Although other forms of defilement are described earlier in the book (5:1–3), the pollution here is restricted to contacts with death, which, in turn, is deliberately associated with sin: The water of cleansing … is for purification from sin (9). Sin and death are inseparably linked in biblical teaching. Sin is the cause of death and death is the consequence of sin, teaching that takes us back to the beginning of humanity’s story. Those who are defiled can no longer dwell in the sphere where God lives and reigns; they must remain outside its borders until they are decontaminated by the means provided.
Timothy Ashley: The one who gathers the ashes puts them in a clean place to store them for later when they will be put into a solution called the waters of impurity (mê niddâ). Just as the so-called waters of purification (mê ḥaṭṭā’ṯ) in 8:7 were for removal of pollution (ḥaṭṭā’ṯ), so here the waters are for the removal of niddâ, which comes from a word meaning “flee,” and hence may mean “that which makes one flee,” “an abominable thing,” “an impurity.” This same word is used of bodily discharges such as menstruation.
It is a purification offering (ḥaṭṭā’ṯ hû’). Here it refers to the collected ashes of the burned cow. The simplest meaning of the clause in the present context is that these burnt ashes count as a purification offering, even though a unique one.
Eugene Merrill: Though this was a sin offering, it was different because its purpose was not expiatory. Its purpose was not to remove sin itself, but to remove the contamination of sin which death represented.
3. (:10a) Procedure for Cleansing the One Gathering the Ashes
“And the one who gathers the ashes of the heifer
shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening;”
D. (:10b) Preparation for Purification Applies Universally and for All Time
“and it shall be a perpetual statute to the sons of Israel
and to the alien who sojourns among them.”
II. (:11-13) PRINCIPLES (GENERAL RULES) FOR PURIFICATION
A. (:11) Reason for Defilement = Touching Dead Corpse – Defiling Power of Death
“The one who touches the corpse of any person
shall be unclean for seven days.”
Timothy Ashley: The latter part of this chapter gives specific instructions for the use of the waters of impurity that were prepared in vv. 1–10. A general statement of the regulation (v. 11) is followed by a general statement of the remedy (v. 12a) and the penalty for failure to comply with the ritual (vv. 12b–13). Then a more detailed procedure follows, including the manner of the ritual, in vv. 14–22. The heading of the latter unit is “This is the regulation …” (zō’ṯ hattôrâ). The same kind of structure (general regulations followed by more detailed procedures), with the same heading, is found, e.g., in the laws for sacrifice in Lev. 1–6.
Iain Duguid: The purpose of the prohibition of touching a corpse in Numbers 19 was not mere superstition or the fear of contracting disease. Rather, it flowed out of the close connection between death and sin. The Lord is the God of life, and those who would approach him need to reflect that life. The Israelites were being taught that death has no place in his presence, nor does anyone who has had contact with the realm of death. Like matter and antimatter, the Lord and death cannot peaceably coexist: the Lord will ultimately vanquish death (1 Corinthians 15:26), and thus even traces of death adhering to a person made him or her unfit to enter the Lord’s presence.
B. (:12) Remedy for Defilement = Cleansing with Water of Purification
“That one shall purify himself from uncleanness with the water on the third day and on the seventh day, and then he shall be clean; but if he does not purify himself on the third day and on the seventh day, he shall not be clean.”
C. (:13) Retribution for Defilement Where There is No Purification
1. Penalty: Cut Off from Israel
“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.”
2. Pronouncement: He Remains Unclean
“Because the water for impurity was not sprinkled on him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is still on him.”
Dennis Cole: vv. 11-13
Who? Anyone who comes into contact with a dead person’s body
Why? Renders unclean, ritually impure for seven days
How? Purification with water of cleansing on third and seventh days
What if/not? Failure to comply renders one impure; defiles sanctuary Anyone
who remains impure must be cut off from the community
III. (:14-21a) PROCESS OF APPLYING PURIFICATION
A. (:14-16) Case Law — Two Contrasting Situations
1. (:14-15) Interior — Case of Death in a Tent
a. (:14) Regarding People
“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.”
Dennis Cole: The second section of the chapter begins with the abbreviated form of the phrase that introduced the legislation in the chapter that defined the preparation of the ashes and the general guidelines governing its usage. “This is the Torah” (zōʾt hattôrâ, “This is the instruction”) commences the specific areas of application of the purification offering of the ashes of the red cow. This section divides into four parts:
(1) answers the questions as to who, what, and how uncleanness is contracted (vv. 14–16),
(2) addresses the issue of procedure in rectifying the uncleanness state (vv. 17–19),
(3) affirms the consequences of noncompliance (v. 20), and
(4) asserts the matter of cleansing for the person who carries out the ritual cleansing process.
b. (:15) Regarding Open Vessels
“And every open vessel, which has no covering tied down on it, shall be unclean.”
Robert Rayburn: All of this indicates how ritually symbolic this material is. If you are inside the tent, things become unclean. But outside the tent nothing becomes unclean as if somehow the material from which the tent is constructed keeps things from being unclean. If the lid is off a jar, what is in the jar becomes unclean. If the lid is on the jar, what is in the jar remains clean. All that is accessible to the dead body is unclean. Nothing outside the tent would be; nothing securely covered would be. This is not a principle of the spiritual life; it is a symbol of a principle of the spiritual life.
2. (:16) Exterior — Case of Death in the Open Field
“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.”
B. (:17-19) 3 Stages in the Process for Applying the Cleansing Waters of Purification
1. (:17) Creating the Purification Mixture
“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.”
Roy Gane: Purification of contaminated persons and spaces involves first mixing some ashes of the red cow with “living water,” that is, fresh water (19:17). “Living water” is appropriate, given that the ritual is to remedy association with death. Next, a ritually pure person will apply the “water of lustration” by dipping hyssop in it and sprinkling whatever dwellings, their contents, and/or persons need purification (19:18).
2. (:18) Cleansing the Unclean Person(s)
“And 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.”
3. (:19) Cleansing the One Performing the Ritual
“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.”
Raymond Brown: The recurrence of three and seven is significant. Three leading elements (blood, fire and water) are supported by the three subsidiary components of cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet thread. Defiled people must wash themselves on the third day (12) and have the purifying water applied (19). The priest sprinkled the heifer’s blood seven times (4), defiled people remained unclean for seven days (11) and the decontaminating process was not complete until that seven-day period had expired (19). The repetition of the ritual on both the third and the seventh day may emphasize both the seriousness of the pollution and the efficacy of the cleansing; the numbers three and seven both indicate completeness, wholeness and thoroughness in Scripture.
Dennis Cole: At the conclusion of the ritual sprinkling of the ashes and water mixture, the previously clean person who had applied the purifying potion was to undergo the same ritual bathing process as the priest and his assistants who prepared and gathered the ashes (vv. 7, 8, 10). That person would wash his garments, then bathe himself with pure water, yet remain in a state of uncleanness until sundown. Then he could reclothe himself with the purified garments, and he could be deemed as clean and able to participate in the holiness of the community.
C. (:20) Penalty for Not Using the Cleansing Waters of Purification
1. Death Penalty
“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;”
Brueggemann: The person’s neglect or refusal of the purification ritual was a high-handed sin for which sacrifice was no longer possible, since they had refused the means of grace. Those who refused this water of purification would “defile the Lord’s Tabernacle,” so they were to be “cut off from the community of Israel” (19:13, 20). This defilement was contagious: Anything a defiled person touched became defiled (19:22). Exposure to a human corpse defiled anyone in the tent where death occurred (19:14) or even an open container in that tent (19:15). Touching even a bone or grave defiled (19:16), so graves were whitewashed, to help people avoid inadvertent contact with them (Matt 23:27; Luke 11:44). But God provided a means of cleansing, even from serious defilement.
2. Declared Permanently Unclean
“the water for impurity has not been sprinkled on him, he is unclean.”
D. (:21a) Perpetual Application of the Ordinance
“So it shall be a perpetual statute for them.”
(:21b-22) APPENDIX – DEALING WITH SECONDHAND UNCLEANNESS
A. (:21b) Cleansing People
“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.”
B. (:22a) Cleansing Objects
“Furthermore, anything that the unclean person touches shall be unclean;”
C. (:22b) Cleansing People
“and the person who touches it shall be unclean until evening.”
Timothy Ashley: The last part of the passage continues to deal with uncleanness. The cases here, however, do not issue from direct contact with the dead, but rather from contact with the waters of impurity or with one who has contacted the dead. For this reason these regulations fall outside the main body of the passage, and look like an appendix. The one who has sprinkled the waters of impurity on the unclean persons and their possessions himself becomes unclean, because the procedure is a purification offering, which does make the officiator unclean (Lev. 16:28). Any person who even touches the waters of impurity shall be unclean. This is because the purification offering absorbs the uncleanness of the one cleansed. Anyone who touches that one (i.e., the one who is unclean) becomes unclean, along with everything that the unclean one touches. This derivative or secondhand uncleanness is of the less serious variety; it is effective only until the evening and may be cleansed by scrubbing garments.