Chapter 10: The Offering Of The Red Heifer

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by Brian Currie, N. Ireland




The Proclamation

The Presentation

The Preparation

The Pollution

The Purification


The first five books of the Bible, known as the ‘Pentateuch’, follow a clear spiritual order. The word ‘Pentateuch’ comes from two Greek words that mean ‘five books’ or ‘five scrolls’. Thus they are often termed the ‘Five Books of Moses’ or the Torah, which means ‘to guide’ or ‘to teach’. So the five introductory books to the Bible are designed by God to instruct us. These books are:

Genesis, (Hebrew, Bereshit) means ‘In the beginning’. It begins with God and displays His purpose and the truth of election. It reveals how mankind was brought down. This humiliation is seen graphically by noting that the book commences with man in a garden and ends with man in a coffin.

Exodus, (Hebrew, Shemot) means ‘Names’. It commences with the names of those who went with Jacob into Egypt, but follows them being brought out. They are purchased and the prevailing subject is redemption. Redemption is seen in a twofold way: in chapter 12, where they are brought out through the blood of the Passover lamb, and in chapter 15, where they are liberated by power, seen in the destruction of Pharaoh’s armies.

Leviticus, (Hebrew, Arqyw Vayyiqra) is how the book opens, and it means ‘And he called’. The people are brought in on the basis of the offerings and the established priesthood, and they draw near as worshippers.

Numbers, (Hebrew, Bamidbar) meaning ‘In the desert’, majors on the wilderness experience of the people. They are seen as pilgrims in the wilderness and as servants being brought through.

Deuteronomy, (Hebrew, D’varim) means ‘Words’ and emphasises the Law for the second time. Man is seen as being brought under its teaching. This book also assures the people that they are possessors of a great inheritance.

The subject of this chapter is dealt with in Numbers chapter 19. It is important to note that the previous book, Leviticus, is the handbook for the priest whereas Numbers is the handbook for the pilgrim. Leviticus coming before Numbers emphasises the truth running through the Scriptures that worship precedes service. In Numbers there is much instruction for the saints of this present time as we also move through the wilderness in pilgrim character, worshipping and serving the Lord as we go. We shall see later that it was almost impossible to remain undefiled in the wilderness and that may well answer the question, “Why is the ritual of the red heifer in Numbers and not with the other sacrifices in Leviticus?” This is for the defiled pilgrim and not so much for the devoted person.


By noting the places the nation visited, we can divide the book:

  • Chapters 1-10: they are at Sinai and we learn the Pattern for God’s People
  • Chapters 10.11-19.22 follow them from Sinai to Kadesh-barnea via Kibroth-hattaavah and Hazeroth, and we learn of the Perversity of God’s People
  • Chapters 20-36 follow them from Kadesh-barnea to the plains of Moab and we learn about the Pilgrimage and Possession of God’s People.

The first section, chapters 1-10, concludes with the people being guided and spoken to by God. These are seen in the cloud and pillar of fire in chapter 9 and in the silver trumpets in chapter 10. With the instructions of this first section having being put in order, we may have expected a spiritually happy and worshipping people ready to live for the pleasure of God. However, the following chapters, 11-19, detail how the people rebelled. We ought not to be surprised that there is a spiritual attack on the nation because they were making progress towards the promised land and the rich inheritance. This is reflected in the Epistle to the Ephesians, where the enemy hinders us enjoying our rich inheritance in Christ and we are told to “put on the whole armour of God” Eph.6.11. However here, instead of using the Divine resources and being victorious, they submit to the enemy and sin and so it is in these chapters that the perversity of God’s people is displayed. This is detailed in the:

  • Murmuring of the Mixed Multitude – chapter 11
  • Murmuring by Miriam – chapter 12
  • Murmuring against Messengers – chapter 13
  • Murmuring against Moses – chapter 14
  • Message of the Law emphasised – chapter 15
  • Mutiny of Korah – chapter 16
  • Manifestation of God’s Priesthood – chapter 17
  • Ministry of and to the Priesthood – chapter 18
  • Managing Defilement – chapter 19

The location of chapter 19 is significant. It provides the answer to defilement in the wilderness. We could think of it as the way post-conversion defilement is cleansed. The truth being expounded is for a redeemed people who are on their journey through the wilderness as pilgrims. It has not so much to do with sins, as there were other offerings for these. This is for defilement, and not even active defilement, but rather the contamination that comes unwittingly because of our situation in the wilderness. It will be noted that in the chapter there is no mention of sins being forgiven judicially: it is rather purification. Note the references to “purify” and “purification”: vv.9,12 (twice),13,17,19,20. It is significant that these words occur seven times. So this ritual is to have God’s people completely purified, but not completely sanctified in the sense of sinless perfection. That God demands purity of His people is seen by the constant occurrence of “ye shall” and “shall” in the chapter; these are repeated thirty-eight times.

Perhaps one of our greatest difficulties is to maintain unbroken communion with God over a prolonged period. We are easily defiled and our link with Him can be broken: not the link of salvation, which can never be broken, but the link of communion, which is very tender and delicate. We have learned from experience that often our holiest moments are our briefest. Sometimes, in this regard, we can come to one of two conclusions, which are both wrong: defilement does not matter and can be overlooked; or defilement is so serious there can be no forgiveness.

This chapter teaches that defilement matters and emphasises that it must be dealt with and that it can be dealt with. We must learn that no defilement is so small that we should not abhor it, nor ought we to think that we cannot be overcome and tarnished by it. Some are tormented with the guilt of their failures, while others pass them off in a flippant way. Lest it be thought that this chapter excuses failure, let it be understood that continual failure and living constantly as defeated, calls into question the reality of that person’s conversion to God.

The necessity of being cleansed can be observed as we read in the chapter of “clean”, “unclean” and “uncleanness”, some twenty-four times. Scriptural mathematicians will divide this as six multiplied by four, suggesting that the number six is man’s number and four is the universal number, so twenty-four signifies men universally. We can be sure that all saints need purification at some time in their lives. My communion with the Lord depends on my freedom from defilement. The teaching of Numbers chapter 19 is for all, young and old; mature and immature; male and female. Note v.9: “it shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel”.


v.1, Proclamation: “And the Lord spake unto Moses and unto Aaron”;
v.2, Presentation: “Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer”;
vv.3-10, Preparation: slaying and sprinkling; blood and burning;
vv.11-16, Pollution: the ways in which defilement can come;
vv.17-22, Purification: the ceremony to effect cleansing.


“And the Lord spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying …”. There are occasions when we read of the Lord speaking to Moses or speaking to Aaron, but eighteen times we read of Him speaking to them both simultaneously. Of these eighteen, nine of them are found in Numbers: 2.1; 4.1,17; 12.4; 14.26; 16.20; 19.1; 20.12,23. It emphasises the necessity of hearing the Lord’s voice as we traverse the wilderness of this world.

These two men typify the Lord Jesus as “the Apostle and High Priest of our profession” Heb.3.1. Moses pictures the apostle of the nation, bringing God to men; while Aaron shows the high priest of the nation, bringing men to God. It demonstrates that the word of the Lord was for all the nation, not just priestly men.


This verse commences with the statement, “This is the ordinance of the law which the Lord hath commanded …” The only other occurrence of this expression is in 31.21 where holiness is demanded for anything that is to be brought inside the camp. The commandment given here is emphasising the seriousness of what is being communicated. We recall the command in 1Pet.1.15,16, “But as He which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, ‘Be ye holy; for I am holy.’”

The commandment is stated in v.2, “Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring…” They, that is, the people, were to bring the heifer. This was not addressed to any specific family or tribe. The implication is that defilement can and will affect anybody and everybody. No one can claim they have not been affected by defilement at some time or another. The privilege of having the presence of God in the tabernacle, in their midst, brought the responsibility of being fit for His presence, which demanded cleanliness.

They were to bring a “red heifer”. “Adam” means ‘red’ and so this animal has to be red since it depicts us in Adam, the fallen federal head. The heifer, being female, highlights the features of devotion, submission and passiveness. This is picturing for us that the reason for defilement is the absence of total devotion to God’s will. To deal with our defilement we needed someone who was totally devoted to God and there was only One Who could honestly say, “Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of Me, I delight to do Thy will, O My God: yea, Thy law is within My heart” Ps.40.7 and quoted in Heb.10.7. This is seen very clearly in Gethsemane, when He said, “Father, if Thou be willing, remove this cup from Me: nevertheless not My will, but Thine, be done” Lk.22.42. Also it is instructive to see that women were last at the cross and first at the tomb. His silence during His trial is emphasised by using the female, “He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth: He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so He openeth not His mouth” Isa.53.7. John’s Gospel, being that of the burnt offering, is replete with His submission and devotion. For example, “My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me, and to finish His work” 4.34; “I seek not Mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent Me” 5.30; “I came down from heaven, not to do Mine own will, but the will of Him that sent Me” 6.38.

The next two characteristics of the sacrificial heifer are “without spot” and “wherein is no blemish”. These two are also brought together in Eph.5.27, “That He might present it to Himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish”; and 1Pet.1.19, “… the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot”. Of course these could refer to being faultless inwardly, “without spot”, and externally, “without blemish”. However, it is appealing to see that the heifer had to be born totally red, without a white or black hair since the presence of such would have debarred the heifer from the ceremony. It had to have lived without blemish, that is never attacked and bruised by a predator, or had a broken limb, or been torn by some fence, etc. It was perfect as far as man could detect.

How beautifully these characteristics are seen in our Lord Jesus Christ. He was born holy: “And the angel answered and said unto her, ‘The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God’” Lk.1.35. As conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin, He was not tainted with Adam’s fallen headship and so there was nothing in His nature that would respond to sin; it was impossible for Him to sin.

He also lived holy, “wherein is no blemish”. The life of the heifer was such that no blemish appeared. We do not know what age the heifer was, but throughout Scripture there is constant reference to a heifer of three years old. In those years of public ministry He lived a life that was perfectly pleasing to God, because that life was sinless. It is hard for us to imagine a Man Who never had to bow at the close of the day and confess sin; a Man Who never had to apologise; never had to retrace a step; recall a word; revisit a situation to put matters right; He was impeccably holy. That is why the Scripture never states that “in Him was no sin”, since the verb in the past tense would have permitted the possibility of sin in the future. The statement in 1Jn.3.5 is: “in Him is no sin”, or “in Him sin is not” J.N.D. No matter where we see Him, in the manger; in Nazareth; in Galilee; in the various villages and cities; in Gethsemane; in the judgment hall; on the cross; in the tomb; in the glory, we can say “In Him sin is not”. Hallelujah, What a Saviour!

The next characteristic is upon which never came yoke”. Our Lord Jesus never needed to be controlled by an external force. He was never under the constraint of another. His whole focus was to carry out the will of God, His Father, and this He did perfectly as taught in Matt.12.18, quoting Isa.42.1, “Behold My Servant, whom I have chosen; My Beloved, in whom My soul is well pleased …”. Some may point to Matt.11.29, “take My yoke upon you …”, and say this proves He bore a yoke. However, that is a yoke He gives, not one that He wears. We are not harnessed to Him! He gives a yoke for us to wear as we are united to other servants in the work of the Lord. It is a privilege for us to be controlled by the One Who guides in every aspect of service.

Of the heifer we read, “ye shall give her unto Eleazar the priest”. Why was it not given to Aaron? Could it be that this ordinance was to be ongoing for the people throughout the wilderness wanderings, whereas in the next chapter, Numbers 20, Aaron died? Others have suggested that Eleazar may typify Christ in resurrection. J.M. Flanigan1 suggests, “It would seem that the High Priest was to be preserved from the defilement which was necessarily involved, even though it was a temporary ceremonial defilement.”

1 Flanigan, J.M. “Christ in The Levitical Offerings”. John Ritchie Ltd., 2011.


Without the Camp

In v.3 we learn that the offering is brought and slain “without the camp”: “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.” This is somewhat unique because the other offerings were slain at the altar. There is no part of this sacrifice that touches the altar; there is nothing of a sweet savour character. This shows that for defilement in the wilderness there is no need for another sin offering. This is a matter of purification, not atonement, and so the blood is not brought into the tabernacle. This is in accord with Heb.13.12 where the Lord Jesus is taken without the camp: “Wherefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered without the gate”.

The death of the Lord Jesus on the cross will never need repetition, refurbishment, renewal or repair: it is as perfect as the One Who offered Himself: “But this man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God” Heb.10.12, A.V.; or perhaps better, “But He, having offered one sacrifice for sins, sat down in perpetuity at the right hand of God” J.N.D. He will never ever rise to deal with sin again. The work accomplished on the cross will never need to be applied twice, clearly teaching that our salvation is eternal and can never be lost. We are to be born again, not again and again and again!

How different was the Day of Atonement, when two sacrifices were made for sin offerings and their blood was taken into the holiest of all and sprinkled before and on the mercy seat. These were a bullock for Aaron and his house and a goat for the people. J.M. Flanigan2 comments on Heb.13.11, “… in the case of the sin offerings of the Day of Atonement, Leviticus chapter 16, the blood was taken into the holiest of all by the high priest and the bodies were incinerated outside the camp. The priests were again forbidden to eat of those offerings. The rule was simple. If the blood of the offering was carried in, then the carcase of the offering was carried out, and if the body of an offering was carried outside the camp then of that offering the priests were not permitted to eat.” This was an annual ritual, but the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus does not need repetition of any description, either literally, historically, or blasphemously as in ‘the mass’.

2 Flanigan, J. M. “Hebrews – What the Bible Teaches”. John Ritchie, Kilmarnock, 1986.

The Slaying

The next expression, “and one shall slay her before his face” implies that the heifer is not slain by Eleazar. Here, the instruction is indefinite; it is “one”, again emphasising that this is for all the congregation, not just for the priests. Also it puts the emphasis on the act of the slaying rather than on the person who did the slaying. Notice the same anonymity in v.5, “one shall burn the heifer”.

While the priest did not slay the heifer, he was acutely aware of what happened, since it took place “before his face”. He was a witness to the violence of the death. This may underline the devotion of the Lord Jesus, in that He knew all that lay before Him, yet He never wavered for one second or turned back.

It was a lonely path He trod,
From every human soul apart,
Known only to Himself and God
Was all the grief that filled His heart;
Yet from the track
He turned not back,
Till where I lay in want and shame,
He found me – blessed be His Name.
     (C. A. Tydeman)

As Eleazar watched the sacrifice with its blood and suffering, could we stand and see something of the feelings of the Lord Jesus as expressed, for example, in Psalm 22?

The Blood

Notice, when the blood is mentioned, the priest’s involvement regarding the sacrifice commences: “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” v.4. The blood is the only part of the animal not burned; it is sprinkled, and that seven times. It is commonly accepted that the number seven denotes completeness and perfection. Here the blood answers before God for all our defilement and does so completely and perfectly. This is ongoing in its value, but for the cleansing of a pilgrim people from defilement it is not blood, it is ashes plus water. This pictures cleansing coming to us by the remembrance of His sacrifice in the convicting power of the Word of God. Thus to be cleansed, we need to read the Scriptures and allow them to have their way in our lives, even though such experiences may be painful. The Word of God is represented as, for example, a hammer to crush and a fire to convict, Jer.20.9; 23.29; water to cleanse, Eph.5.26; a sword to cut, Heb.4.12; light to clarify, Ps.119.105; milk to cater for, 1Cor.3.2; 1Pet.2.2; seed to cultivate, Lk.8.11, 1Pet.1.23. The Lord has left us with everything that we require to live a sanctified life.

When we read of blood being shed it tells us of God’s provision, whereas sprinkled blood is highlighting the application and so it is faith’s appropriation. Here the priest uses his finger, which gives the application of blood directness and emphasis. The blood of Christ was shed at Calvary, but was applied to us when we believed the gospel, and it is efficacious for all eternity.

The Burning

We learn from v.5 that the animal was totally consumed by fire: “And one shall burn the heifer in his sight; her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, shall he burn”. As Kingscote3 states, “the whole animal is taken outside the camp, and entirely consumed. It is burnt to ashes. What does that signify to us? … it is a figure of how entirely all our sins were borne and put away forever at the cross.” The all-consuming judgment of God against sin was the portion of the Lord Jesus when He hung upon the cross. Man may scourge, spit, slap and scorn the Son of God, but only “the Lord” Himself can lay “on Him the iniquity of us all” Isa.53.6. The depth of mystery of the fourth cry from the cross, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Matt.27.46, can only be understood as we ponder 2Cor.5.21, “For He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” The nearest we can come to understanding this is to appreciate that when He was on the cross, in those dark, lonely hours, God treated His Son as He would treat sin. We may hear the Saviour say, “From above hath He sent fire into my bones, and it prevaileth against them” Lam.1.13. It is at the cross we appreciate that “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed” Isa. 53.5. It is necessary to observe that the word “stripes” is really in the singular and it is “with His stripe”, that given by God and not man, that “we are healed”. Vv.6,10 “… the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all … Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He hath put Him to grief: when Thou shalt make His soul an offering for sin …” In the offering before us, the fire consumed the sacrifice, but at Calvary the Sacrifice consumed the fire and for us the fear of eternal fire is gone. He “endured the cross” Heb.12.2, and rose from the dead and “is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” as God’s all-conquering Son.

3 Kingscote, R.F. “Christ as seen in the offerings.” Bible Truth Publishers, Illinois, 1977.

Cedar Wood, and Hyssop, and Scarlet

Now we are told of something unusual: “And the priest shall take cedar wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer” v.6. The cedar wood and hyssop are brought together five times with regard to the cleansing of the leper, in Lev.14.4,6,49,51,52; and in 1Kgs.4.33, “from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall”. The cedar tree and the hyssop illustrate man in his loftiness and his lowliness. These features may be seen in the Saviour in Philippians chapter 2: His loftiness in v.6, “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God” and His lowliness in vv.7,8, “But made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross”. We have similar truths from, for example, Jn.1.1,14, “the Word was God … the Word was made flesh”; and Heb.1.3, “Who being the brightness of His glory, and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high”. However, He answered for the defilement of others, and not His own, since He never was defiled.

There was also the scarlet, which is the colour of pomp, worldly glory and sin. Men love place and position, for example Rev.17.3,4, “I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication”. In the kingly, regal Gospel we read “they stripped Him, and put on Him a scarlet robe” Matt.27.28. In John’s Gospel it is said to be purple. Such a love for glory is sinful: “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” Isa.1.18, and must be cast into the fire. If defilement comes through a proud spirit, then humility is required for restoration. The fact that these were cast into the midst of the burning illustrates that everything, whether it came from an upright, dignified man or an unholy, depraved man, or all that marked them with ungodly deeds, was under the judgment of God and was therefore burned.

Thus the believer can gaze at Calvary and see all in which he may have gloried brought to an end: “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” Gal.6.14.


Eleazar the priest, who took the heifer outside the camp, the person who burned the heifer, and the person who gathered up the ashes, are now pronounced unclean. “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 … And he that gathereth the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even” vv.7,8,10. The people in general and these men in particular must have been impressed with the holiness of God. It could well be asked if there is any other passage in the Bible which teaches His holy demands in the smallest things as does this chapter. We too must be impressed with how much our Lord suffered, not only that we might be saved, but kept in communion with God. All that would hinder our communion is cast into the fire and as we, in spirit, stand at Calvary we can again join with the apostle Paul in the truth of Gal.6.14, quoted above. He taught us that one of the outcomes of the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus was “that He might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father” Gal.1.4.

Even though they were washed the men involved were, to “be unclean until the even”. They would commence a new day with the defilement gone and having a fresh start. That their defilement took place while they were serving is a most solemn observation. A similar truth is found in 2Kgs.6.5, when the axe head was lost in service. We must be spiritually alert when we are seeking the restoration of a fellow believer lest we be tempted: “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness, considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted” Gal.6.1.

The Ashes

The memorial that death had taken place, the ashes, is now brought to our attention, together with the three persons involved. There is Eleazar, the priest, who took the heifer outside the camp, the person who burned the heifer, and the person who gathered up the ashes, “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” v.9. There has to be a clean man and a clean place to obtain what was required to maintain a clean people. For a servant to be “a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work”, he must “purge himself” 2Tim.2.21.

Typically the clean man represents Joseph of Arimathaea, who took the body of the Lord Jesus to a clean place, his own new tomb. “When the even was come, there came a rich man of Arimathaea, named Joseph, who also himself was Jesus’ disciple: He went to Pilate, and begged the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be delivered. And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, And laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed” Matt.27.57-60.

Practically the lesson is that if we are to be used in the recovery of those who are defiled, we ourselves must be clean. In other offerings, when they were burned that was the end, but here the main point is that the ashes provided the means for ongoing cleansing. The effects lasted for years to come, but to do so the ashes had to be stored: “lay them up without the camp in a clean place” v.9. They were not kept in the court, or the holy place, but outside the camp, so that they were available for all, whether priest or one of the common people. The ashes had to be continually available since there is no such thing taught in Scripture as complete sanctification or sinless perfection, while we are still in the body on earth. As previously noted this cleansing is not by blood, but by the ashes mixed with water to make “the water of separation” vv.9,13,20,21. For completeness perhaps we ought to note that the only mention of “the water of separation” outside this chapter is in 31.23. This emphasises the uniqueness of this chapter in its teaching.

THE POLLUTION – vv.11-16

These verses reveal that there are a number of ways in which a person could be defiled and remain so for seven days:

· “toucheth the dead body of any man” v.11

· “when a man dieth in a tent”, which affects every open vessel in the tent vv.14,15

· “toucheth one that is slain … in the open fields, or a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a grave” v.16.

Defilement by Touching

Vv.11,13 are similar in that they tell us of one who “toucheth” a dead body: “He that toucheth the dead body of any man shall be unclean seven days … Whosoever toucheth the dead body of any man that is dead …”. It may be thought this was a rare occurrence especially since the language implies that it was done deliberately. However, it would have been difficult to remain undefiled in the wilderness with so many deaths taking place. We learn from 1Cor.10.5 that “they were overthrown in the wilderness” or as J.N. Darby graphically states, “they were strewed in the desert”. We do not know exactly how many people died in the wilderness, but the following gives some idea of the scale of these deaths. If six hundred thousand died in the wilderness during the thirty-eight and a half years, then on average there were forty-three funerals per day. If there were two and a half million deaths, then there would have been on average one hundred and seventy-seven funerals per day. This underlines the fact that there were corpses all around and to remain undefiled meant being very vigilant.

We live in a world where spiritually there are many corpses and the evidence of spiritual death is everywhere. We think of the media, where anything goes in order to gain an audience: advertising hoardings that can offend sensitivities; novels and magazines that are perverse; every day we are exposed to “the filthy conversation of the wicked” 2Pet.2.7. There are six “woes” in Isa.5.8-22: vv.8,11,18,20,21,22, which emphasise the depravity of the human heart and especially as seen in leadership. Those in mind are said to “draw iniquity with cords of vanity, and sin as it were with a cart rope” v.18. This graphic language illustrates the bondage of sin but yet their love for sin since they drag it with them and it is so heavy anything other than a cart rope would break. The same idea is seen in Prov.5.22, “His own iniquities shall take the wicked himself, and he shall be holden with the cords of his sins.” Their perversity is described in Isa.5.20, “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” People like this are all around us and in terms of Numbers chapter 19 they are dead. They are so multitudinous that they are found in every walk of life making it almost impossible for us not to be defiled by contact with them. When the prodigal son in Luke chapter 15 returned to his father after a time of sin in the far country, his father stated twice that he had been “dead”: “this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found … for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found” vv.24,32. Obviously, he was not literally dead but was classified alongside the Ephesians prior to their salvation “you hath He quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins” Eph.2.1.

Defilement and the Tabernacle

That the defilement can reach “the tabernacle of the Lord” v.13, underlines the seriousness of being defiled. It is very bad when we affect each other, but to contaminate the very dwelling of God; how serious is that? In our day the Divine dwelling is the assembly, 1Tim.3.15, “But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and

ground of the truth.” Moral defilement was reaching the assembly in 1Corinthians chapter 5 and in Galatians it was doctrinal defilement that was attacking the testimony. The seriousness of these attacks is seen in the sentence that is in each of these chapters, “… A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” 1Cor.5.6; Gal.5.9. Of course, these are not the only matters that could defile the assembly. For example, 1Cor.5.9-13 includes a number of sins that are so defiling that those who commit them must be “put away”: “I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world. But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.” To leave such things unjudged, and thus have sin in the camp, inevitably will lead to chastening by God and the demise of the testimony. Too often there is laxity in the realm of judging sin, sometimes because of family ties or personal friendships and this may explain why there can be a spiritual dearth among us. Unfortunately we can have contact with a “dead body” in the world, the office, at college, in university, school and even in the home and it all affects the assembly. We cannot divide our lives into little sections and think that if we behave ourselves with propriety in the assembly, then we can live however we desire outside these few hours of collective gatherings. We need to remember that we represent the assembly twenty-four hours every day.

Defilement in the Tent

The spreading influence of this contamination is taught in v.14: “This is the law, when a man dieth in a tent: all that come into the tent, and all that is in the tent, shall be unclean seven days.”  It would be expected that “when a man dieth in a tent” all who are in the tent when death takes place are to be unclean, but the seriousness and the spreading contamination of the defilement is seen in that “all that come into the tent”, that is, coming in after the death, are also unclean. Practically it means that when a Christian displays features of that which belongs to the dead world, he can contaminate others. In this context there are two questions worth pondering in Hag.2.11-13, “Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Ask now the priests concerning the law, saying, If one bear holy flesh in the skirt of his garment, and with his skirt do touch bread, or pottage, or wine, or oil, or any meat, shall it be holy? And the priests answered and said, ‘No.’ Then said Haggai, ‘If one that is unclean by a dead body touch any of these, shall it be unclean?’ And the priests answered and said, ‘It shall be unclean.’” We need to learn the solemn and searching lessons that holiness cannot be imparted, but impurity certainly can. Space forbids dealing in detail with these two very important principles, which teach us the importance of association, but it must be noted that to maintain purity there must be separation. It would be of benefit to read 2Timothy chapter 2, where the apostle outlines the features of a true and faithful servant, and to note the words “entangleth”, “shun”, “depart”, “purge”, “flee”, “avoid”. Observe also the five couplets contained in 2Cor.6.14-18.

In v.14 the defilement is not outside in the field but in the home and, as noted, it spreads widely. “When a man dieth in a tent: all that come into the tent, and all that is in the tent, shall be unclean seven days.” It is a great pity when our homes become places of defilement and contagion. When other Christians come in they are infected by the talk, jokes, habits, hobbies, etc. How blessed when the conversation in the home has Mal.3.16 as the example: “Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before Him for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon His name.”

Defilement of Tools

In v.15 we learn that not only people but utensils are involved: “And every open vessel, which hath no covering bound upon it, is unclean.” These imply vessels in current use, bringing to mind that servants can be defiled in a home. The New Testament calls the human body a vessel on a number of occasions: “we have this treasure in earthen vessels” 2Cor.4.7; “every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour” 1Thess.4.4; “If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use …” 2Tim.2.21; “… giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel …” 1Pet.3.7. So here we have a servant defiled and the reason was because there was no covering or lid. If the vessel had not been so open it would not have been defiled!

The coverings produced by mankind are of no avail: “the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons” Gen.3.7, but when the Lord came to the garden Adam confessed, “I heard Thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” Gen.3.10. He realised that the work of his hands, fig leaf aprons, were insufficient covering in the sight of God. In the tabernacle there were four coverings called curtains and coverings. The curtains were of fine twined linen and goats’ hair, while the coverings were of rams’ skins dyed red and badgers’ skins and were to protect the tabernacle from the ingress of contamination. Isaiah records the Lord’s charge against the nation: “Woe to the rebellious children, saith the Lord, that take counsel, but not of Me; and that cover with a covering, but not of My Spirit, that they may add sin to sin” Isa.30.1.

What coverings are available for us? We are well catered for since we have the “whole armour of God” Eph.6.11. There are three references in the New Testament to the Christian’s armour: Rom.13.12, “armour of light”, and it is used against the flesh; 2Cor.6.7, “the armour of righteousness”, used against the world; and then there is “the whole armour of God”, used against the devil, Eph.6.11. To supplement this there are garments we can utilise: Rom.13.14, “put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof”; Eph.4.24; Col.3.10, “put on the new man”; Col.3.12,14, “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering … above all these things put on charity …”

Defilement in the Field

In v.16 we learn that defilement comes not only through infection, v.14, but through contagion: “And whosoever toucheth one that is slain with a sword in the open fields”. Thus we must be alert as we journey in the wilderness and carefully pick our steps lest we come into contact with the dead. We have to live in the world, but that is very different to having fellowship with the ungodly world. Paul warns against isolation, but strongly teaches separation: “I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world” 1Cor.5.9,10.

This defilement comes through death: “one that is slain with a sword in the open fields.” This is one who has been overcome by an enemy when in the world. It is good to note that they, at least, put up a fight, but their defeat became a source of defilement to others. Yet it is sad but salutary to learn that our weakness and lack of spiritual devotion can become a snare for others. Are all the older saints a real example to the younger? John is very clear in his teaching: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” 1Jn.2.15. Little wonder the Lord Jesus prayed for His disciples, “I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which Thou hast given Me; for they are Thine … I pray not that Thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that Thou shouldest keep them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” Jn.17.9,15,16.

The expression “or a dead body” seems to imply a body not buried, since the grave is mentioned later. Was this one who had not been slain by the sword and so had not put up a fight? Perhaps this person was overcome by a subtle means and not in open confrontation. As we apply this to our daily living we have knowledge of those who succumbed to the world in the realm of business where lying, cheating, using questionable methods, tax evasion and the like are accepted as normal. The person who can cheat best is often looked upon as the one with most business acumen. This dead body, lying on the ground, is open evidence of defilement. So today there is open evidence of sin which is often legalised and this can be used subtly by the enemy to defile others. There are things far better not mentioned, since so to do only puts ideas in the mind.

The next mentioned source of defilement is “a bone of a man” which seems a trivial or insignificant thing to record. Surely one might be tempted to think that there is no contamination transferred by such a trivial thing as a bone. There is no putrefaction in that. However, the Lord is showing us that anything that has to do with death is defiling. James’ instruction is “to keep himself unspotted from the world” Jms.1.27. We cannot put defilement in pigeon holes or some kind of a league table as to its seriousness.

Next referred to is “a grave”, which is the evidence of death and this contaminates. We may have had a former sin or habit and we thought we were finished with it and it was buried, but has it ever been resurrected? We professed at our baptism to have died to these things and that we are walking in “newness of life” Rom.6.4. Have we unwrapped the mummified relics of our old way of life and do we find them defiling us?


How can purification be made good in our experience when we are defiled? Defilement will not just disappear; it will not resolve itself. When defilement comes to someone personally, or into the camp, some well-intentioned Christian will say that we should pray about the matter, almost as if that is a shield behind which they can hide because they do not want to have to deal with it. However, defilement must be dealt with positively. In Joshua chapter 7, when the men of Israel “fled before the men of Ai” v.4, “Joshua rent his clothes, and fell to the earth upon his face before the ark of the Lord until the eventide” v.6. What was the response of God? “The Lord said unto Joshua, ‘Get thee up; wherefore liest thou thus upon thy face? Israel hath sinned …’” vv.10,11. While it is good to pray concerning every matter and every decision, there comes the time for action and not supplication. We are instructed to “lay aside every weight” Heb.12.1, since weights that hinder our spiritual progress will not just drop off.

To enable cleansing to be effected, the ashes were put into a vessel with running water: “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” v.17. The ashes were evidence that death had taken place and to enable them to be applied to the defiled person they needed water. This clearly depicts the finished work of the Lord Jesus upon Calvary, applied to a defiled person in the power of the Holy Spirit. It may be helpful to mention that water in Scripture can have one of three interpretations. Where there are vast, copious amounts of water we are thinking of the judgment of God, for example the flood of Noah’s day. When it is calm water, for example the water in the laver, this is a picture of the Holy Scriptures. When it is running, bubbling water, as here, it illustrates the Holy Spirit of God, for example “He that believeth on Me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spake He of the Spirit …)” Jn.7.38,39.

It cannot be over-emphasised that now it all concerns water, not blood. We are not told how often a heifer was to be sacrificed. The ashes were to last a long time! Restoration will be achieved if we could get back to what we were and what we felt the moment we got saved. At that moment of conversion we appreciated His death and our nothingness.

A Clean Person

To have the experience of helping others to be cleansed there needs to be a clean person. Are we clean enough to help others? “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” vv.18,19.

This clean person seeking to cleanse others may be seen in Gal.6.1, “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” The “spirit of meekness” is required to permit a clean person to get close to the defiled person to effect cleansing. A proud, haughty, censorious spirit will make it almost impossible to see the defiled person cleansed. Thus the “water of separation” is applied using hyssop, the lowly plant that pictures the spirit required. We recall the meek humility of the Saviour when He laid aside His garments to wash the feet of the disciples.

The defiled person was sprinkled on the third day and purified on the seventh day.

The third day is the day of the Lord’s resurrection, while the seventh day brings us to the perfection accomplished when He comes again. It is only then that we shall be fully and perfectly cleansed. There is no thought of sinless perfection as long as we are in the body.

Another solemn principle to be grasped is that it only took a moment to be defiled but it took a week to be purified, showing that it is much more difficult to get cleansed than it is to get defiled. In Lk.2.44 the ‘parents’ of the Lord Jesus went a day’s journey without Him. However, it took three days to turn back and find Him, v.46. It took a few hours for Peter to get away from the Lord, but it took more than seventy-two hours for him to be restored, Jn.18.27; Lk.24.34. Restoration is done with dignity with nothing rushed, light or frivolous. There is time to allow the lack of communion to be experienced so that repentance and recovery will be genuine. The cleansing took place on the seventh day and thus there is a new start on the eighth day. What an encouragement this is for us: there is provision for defilement and we can make a new start.

It is noticeable that the person sprinkling the unclean shall be unclean until the even, v.21. He has to wash his clothes, but not his flesh, indicating that his defilement is not as deep as that of the offender. This shows that occupation with the failure of others can lead to defilement. His clothes speak to us of character and association, which can be the root of temptation to us. Thus Gal.6.1 gives the qualification of “ye which are spiritual” and the warning, “lest thou also be tempted”. We dare not seek to restore another without a deep understanding of the need of self-judgment.

The spreading influence of defilement is brought to our attention in v.22, “And whatsoever the unclean person toucheth shall be unclean; and the soul that toucheth it shall be unclean until even.” We need to learn the truth that “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” 1Cor.5.6; Gal.5.9. This also teaches the necessity of taking great care in the matter of reception to the assembly.

It is a most serious matter to leave defilement unchecked: v.20, “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.” The man here is cut off, not because of the original defilement, but because he refused to be clean and his defilement has reached the sanctuary. In our day the phrase “that soul shall be cut off from among the congregation, because he hath defiled the sanctuary of the Lord” surely means excommunication or worse. Excommunication is taught in 1Corinthians chapter 5, but 1Cor.11.30,31 is worse, “For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.” From these verses we observe that it is possible to be fit for heaven, but not for the assembly!

We need to obey the apostolic injunction, “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” 2Cor.7.1, and remember “every man that hath this hope in Him purifieth himself, even as He is pure” 1Jn.3.3. David wisely prayed, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” Ps.139.23,24.