The red heifer (Numbers 19)

The ritual of the red heifer was a purification rite intended to cleanse Israelites defiled by contact with the dead. Anyone who had touched a corpse became ritually impure for seven days with a contagious impurity that could defile other persons, vessels and, at worst, the Lord’s sanctuary (Numbers 19:20). The young red cow selected was to be without defect or blemish and never to have borne a yoke (i-e. never to have been used for secular service, see Numbers 19:2). As the heifer was being completely incinerated, the priest was to add cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet wool to the pyre (Numbers 19:6). These materials were also associated with other purification rituals (cf. Leviticus 14:4-7, Psalm 51:7).

The priest then mixed the heifer’s ashes with spring water to produce a cleansing solution, with which the impure person was sprinkled on the third and seventh days, after which he or she was considered to be ritually clean (Numbers 19:12).

The ritual of the red heifer was unique among Israel’s ceremonial traditions for the following reasons:

  • The animal was burned outside the camp rather than being sacrificed on the altar (Numbers 19:3). The heifer’s blood and dung were burned alongside the carcass, a procedure otherwise forbidden in sacrificial law (Numbers 19:5, see Leviticus 4:11-12). Blood was not drained from the sacrifice because it constituted a necessary cleansing ingredient, along with the ashes.
  • The officiants themselves contracted impurity while making this sacrifice and themselves had to be purified, though not using the same procedure (Numbers 19:7-10).

The efficacy of this ritual lay in the transfer of the impurity from the defiled person to the heifer. The corrupted animal was burned outside the camp lest it pollute the congregation in the same ay it had tainted those with whom it had already come into contact with. Ironically, as the heifer and its associated impurity were completely destroyed, the resulting ashes were able to purify those who had become ritually defiled.

The New Testament reinforces the significance of the red heifer in relation to the sacrificial work of Christ. Just as the heifer was slaughtered outside the camp to attain purification for the defiled, so Jesus – who bore the sins and impurities of all humanity – was crucified outside Jerusalem in order to achieve redemption through His blood for all sinners (Hebrews 13:11-12, cf. Hebrews 9:13-14).

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