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This week’s portion is Huqqath (Numbers 19-22:1), meaning “the statute/ordinance of” (for more on what a statute/ordinance is, see The ordinances of God). It’s a very eventful portion, and took me a bit of thinking to narrow down what to write about; but a survey of the text revealed an angle that, to me, seemed worth exploring.

Job 14:4 says, “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? No one!” And yet this Torah portion documents 2 separate occasions on which that precise thing was accomplished: first with the ashes of the red heifer, then the bronze serpent.

In Of ritual impurity and women, I noted that ritual impurity can be caused by the following conditions:

  1. Exposure to, or direct contact with, a human corpse
  2. Contact with the carcasses of unclean animals, or clean animals which did not die by ritual slaughter
  3. Male and female emissions
  4. Giving birth
  5. Contracting צָרַעַת (tzara’ath, typically translated “leprosy”)
  6. Contact with people/objects that’ve been contaminated by the above

Interestingly, all these incurrences of ritual impurity required the unclean person to bring offerings to God as part of the cleansing process, with 2 exceptions: contamination via secondary contact, and contact with death. In the case of the former, washing and waiting till the evening was, quite understandably, sufficient; while with the latter, the person had to undergo a cleansing period of 7 days, during which they had to be sprinkled with running water mixed with the red heifer’s ashes on the third and seventh days, then bathe and launder their clothes.

This is very interesting because death is the most potent source of ritual contamination in the Mosaic system – yet a personal sacrifice is not required on the part of the contaminated in order for them to be cleansed. Instead, they are purified through an offering that was made quite apart from them, and once for all (that is, so to speak, since the ashes of a single heifer, though ample, would eventually run out, upon which another animal was then sacrificed; in Jewish tradition, it’s taught in fact that throughout Israel’s history, a total of 9 red heifers were burned for this purpose).

The weightiness of this offering can be seen if one compares it to similar offerings. Unlike ordinary sacrifices, which were slaughtered at the entrance of the tent of meeting, the red heifer was slaughtered outside the camp like the Yom Kippur scapegoat, the atonement cow for unsolved murders (Deuteronomy 21), and the purification bird for a healed metzora or leper – indicating remission for a significant level of sin, which required the sacrifice to be taken outside the camp. At the same time, Numbers 19:9 explicitly says in the Hebrew that the red heifer’s ashes are a hattath – the offering which is made for unintentional sin (see The sacrifices of God: part II for more).

All of which, in my opinion, tell us that death is the one thing no man can help or do anything about. It comes to all, is an implacable foe, and carries with it the highest level of spiritual uncleanness to be found in creation, since it is the direct violation of God’s first and ultimate will for us. There is no offering that we can make which is sufficient to cleanse us from its stain, or powerful enough to release us from its grip… that is, apart from the sacrifice which God has set out Himself, first in the ashes of the red heifer for Israel, then the perfect sacrifice of Yeshua, His appointed Messiah, for the entire human race.

And notably, everyone who was involved in preparing and using the ashes was rendered unclean in the process – from the priest in whose presence the heifer was slaughtered and burned, to the person responsible for burning it, to the one who gathered up its ashes, to the people sprinkling/carrying the water of purification into which the ashes were mixed. Ironically, the only people who were not rendered unclean upon contact with the ash water were those who needed to be purified by it; so the red heifer’s ashes had the strange effect of rendering unclean those who were clean, and clean those who were not.

The exact explanation for this is unknown, which is why the law of the red heifer is called a statute/ordinance (again, see The ordinances of God). But I do have a thought on the matter. … It’s only a theory, so I’d caution anyone against considering it definitive. But continuing along the line of thought that’s been articulated so far, perhaps this peculiar trait of the red heifer’s ashes is supposed to be a reinforcement of the message that it is solely on the strength of God’s decree – His grace in the provision of a sacrifice which He alone judges is satisfactory – that we are made clean, and nothing else. … In the same way Romans 9:16 says, “It is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy,” it is not of him who slaughters/burns/gathers, nor of him who sprinkles, but of God who makes clean – and so we are pointed forward to the truth that we are saved from death through the sacrifice of Christ alone, and not the work/mediation of any man (certainly not our own).

… Or perhaps, now that I think of it, this peculiarity of the ashes is an indication of the innocence of the blood that’s been shed. For interestingly, no one lays hands on the heifer when it’s slaughtered, which means it isn’t identified with any single person or group in particular. In that sense, it doesn’t embody sin like the other sacrifices, and is a pure offering before God… and it is the shedding of innocent blood which defiles. Perhaps this is why all who have a hand in the sacrifice and handling of the red heifer’s remains become unclean, just as all are guilty in the death of Yeshua – though conversely, just as the ashes of the animal were powerful to both render unclean and purify, so is the blood of Christ all-sufficient in its ability to condemn, and cleanse people of sin. … Before the innocent blood of Yeshua, all are judged and found wanting; but on whom it is sprinkled in faith, they are granted new life and purified from death – or as John 11:25-26 puts it: “He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die”. 

Whatever the case, it’s a great mystery and truth that through something ostensibly exceedingly unclean, God willed to bring about the greatest purification for His people.

Similarly, in Numbers 21, we’re told that God sent fiery serpents into the camp to bite and kill many people when the children of Israel complained terribly against Moses and the manna. Then God instructed Moses to make an image of a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, so that anyone who’d been bitten could look upon it and recover. So ironically, the thing which was a torment and misery to Israel, an embodiment of the judgement of God, was the same thing that served to heal them.

So just as the red heifer presented an appearance of exceeding sinfulness, being completely red (red being the colour of sin as per Isaiah 1:18), and yet bore no actual sin, so the bronze serpent, being made in the image of a terrible judgement, offered the very means by which that judgement could be averted – and both were prophetic symbols of the way in which Yeshua would be offered up… maligned, slandered, and deemed cursed by all who saw Him, yet bringing about the purification and healing of many through that very act of being lifted up in sacrifice.

In my opinion, these accounts highlight a couple of things. The first, as has already been articulated, is the importance of faith and where one places it – that is, not in any man but in God. The second is the peculiar principle that God does things measure for measure, so it takes death to remove death, and judgement to remove judgement.

One sees this, for example, in studying the red heifer ritual and the purification ritual of a healed leper (the only 2 occasions when a combination of cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop was involved in the purification process, which indicates Scriptural comparability). In the case of the leper, the cedar, crimson and hyssop were mixed with the blood of a bird, whereas with the red heifer, they were added to the animal’s ashes as it was burning. In my opinion, this is because the leper’s purification involved the removal of iniquity (see Understanding Biblical leprosy for more), which required the use of blood. But in the case of the heifer, death itself is not a sin, but a consequence of sin, so it could only be atoned for by another death (and that through judgement, fire being a symbol thereof) – hence the use of ashes.

All of which, in turn, point to what happened at the cross, and the plan of God from the beginning to deal with both sin and death through substitutionary atonement and judgement (… you could almost say that, like Caesar, the twin tyrants of sin and death needed to be rendered their own, hence the Biblical pattern of blood for blood and ashes to ashes).

So the greater part of Huqqath seems to be telling us that it is really only by the grace of God that we can get anywhere. … It’s by His grace alone that we have our sins forgiven and covered over, and it’s by His grace alone that we are purified and healed, and brought to the finish line of His plan for us. For it’s only God who can, in His wisdom and mercy, satisfy the demands of His justice without ending us entirely; by ourselves, we’re wont to court it in our propensity to sin. And almost as if to prove the point, the narrative jumps ahead about 38 years right after Numbers 19, to when Israel is approaching the time of entering Canaan again; and it’s at this juncture that Moses and Aaron sin, and get barred from entering the Promised Land.

… The 2 people whom one would think stood the greatest chance of entering Canaan did not, because men – even the best of men – fail. Likewise, the text tells us that the Edomites, whom one might think would have some sympathy for their Israelite cousins and let them pass through their land, did not. And then finally, and very regretfully, Aaron passes away. … Thus any belief one might have in the capacities of men are demonstrated, in Scripture, to be uncertain in the end.

Now it’s only after these events that Israel is recorded as beginning to defeat her enemies at last, and approach the very border of Canaan in Numbers 21. So arguably, there’s actually a third instance in this Torah portion of God bringing something clean out of what was unclean. For just as He wrought purity out of impurity with the red heifer, and healing out of affliction in the matter of the bronze serpent, God was now bringing a new nation out of the old: the former generation of Israel had passed away, and out of that exceedingly stiff-necked, rebellious and doomed people, He was raising a new generation that would inherit the promises which, just 40 years earlier, had seemed so decidedly thwarted. He had not forsaken Israel, but was still faithful to carry out His will concerning her.

… So in the end, in the face of all this, one can really only come to one conclusion: the Lord is good, and His mercy endures forever. And thank God for that.

Next week – the antics of Balaam.