Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Numbers 19

Numbers 19: The Water of Cleansing


This chapter outlines rules for the “water of cleansing.”
  • The Israelites were to bring to Eleazar (Aaron’s son) a red heifer, “without defect or blemish and that has never been under a yoke” (verse 2) Eleazar was to take it outside the camp, and it was to be slaughtered in his presence.
  • He was then to take some of its blood, and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the Tent of Meeting.
  • Once this was done, he was to oversee the burning of the animal—all of it (“its hide, flesh, blood and offal” (verse 5)).
    • While the heifer was burning, Eleazar was to take some cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet wool, and throw them onto the fire, too.
  • After this was done, the priest and the man who had burned the animal were both to wash their clothes and bathe, and then they would be unclean until that evening. It specifically says that the priest could return to the camp, even though he would be unclean until that evening, although it doesn’t mention of the other man would be allowed to return.
  • After the animal was burned, a third man—who had to be clean—was to gather up the ashes, and put them in a ceremonially clean place outside the camp. This man, also, was then to wash his clothes, and he would be considered unclean until that evening.
At this point, you might be wondering what these instructions have to do with the “water of cleansing.” (That is, if you haven’t already read the chapter yourself—which you really should have.) Verse 9b says that the ashes from this bull were to be used in the water of cleansing. (It’s specified later how they were to be used.)

The rest of this chapter goes into some rules for when this water was to be used.
  • Anyone who touched a dead body would be considered unclean for seven days. He was to cleanse himself with the water of cleansing on the third and seventh days, and would then be considered clean.
    • If anyone touched a dead body and failed to cleanse himself on the third and seventh days, he was to be cut off from Israel, because he would have defiled the LORD’s tabernacle (verse 13).
  • When someone died in a tent, anyone who was in the tent at the time, or entered the tent while the dead body was in it, would be unclean for seven days. Also, any containers with unfastened lids would be considered unclean.
  • Verse 16 seems to be making explicit the rule mentioned above, that anyone who touched a dead body would be unclean for seven days:
    Anyone out in the open who touches someone who has been killed with a sword or someone who has died a natural death, or anyone who touches a human bone or a grave, will be unclean for seven days.
Finally, verses 17–22 discuss how the water of cleansing was to be used:
  • Some of the ashes from the heifer were to be put into a jar, and fresh water was to be poured over them.
  • A man who was ceremonially clean was to take some hyssop, dip it in the water, and sprinkle it where appropriate. (The tent and its furnishings, if someone died in a tent; any people who were in the tent, or entered it; any people who touched a dead body, or bone, or other unclean thing.)
  • As mentioned before, the unclean people were to be sprinkled on the third and seventh days, and then were to be purified on the seventh day. The evening of the seventh day, the person would be considered clean.
  • Again, it is mentioned that if someone was unclean, and did not get purified with the water of cleansing, he was to be cut off from the community, for defiling the sanctuary of the LORD.
  • The man who did the sprinkling was to wash his clothes, and he would be considered unclean until that evening—and so would anyone who touched the water of cleansing. As verse 22 states, “uncleanness” could spread:
    Anything that an unclean person touches becomes unclean, and anyone who touches it becomes unclean till evening.
It’s not stated that the person who sprinkled the water of cleansing had to be a priest or a Levite. I don’t know if it’s assumed that it had to be a priest/Levite, or if this was a function that another Israelite could perform.


I don’t have much to say about this chapter, except that these rules served two purposes:

First, these rules would be sanitary. Of course, avoiding dead bodies is a good thing, and, when it can’t be avoided, these rules would force the Israelites to take it seriously.

Second, and more importantly, these rules reinforce the point that the LORD is holy, and is not to be treated lightly. You’ve touched a dead body? Then you can’t come near His Tabernacle—not until you’ve been cleansed. It’s not a sin, per se, but it’s still something that makes you unclean.

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