by Tom Wilson, Scotland
The only appropriate response in the heart of a spiritual man or woman to the death of Christ is one of deep gratitude. There is also an accompanying consciousness of his or her feeble grasp of all that death once entailed for the holy Sufferer, and now endows upon the recipients of its blessings. Because of its profundity, no matter how often we “turn aside [to] see this great sight,” while our sense of standing on holy ground may increase, there ever will remain an overwhelming conviction that neither the noblest of saints nor the mighty angelic beings could plumb the depths of Calvary, Ex.3.3-5.
Undoubtedly, every true child of God treasures the four inspired records of the facts about the Lord’s death from the pens of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Equally, every believer values the expositions of the doctrine relating to that death in other New Testament writings. The rich vocabulary of the Epistles draws much from the Old Testament offerings and prophecies. We learn that the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all has set us apart for God’s pleasure, Ps.40.6-8; Col.1.22; Heb.10.10; and that the blood of Christ meets God’s eye, Ex.12.13; 1Pet.1.19-21. When the church of God in a locality meets to remember the Lord on the first day of the week, each heart is reminded of the commentary the Lord gave on the bread and wine. How precious are His words: “My body … My blood” Lk.22.19,20; precious words that in part reflect Old Testament teaching in respect of ‘cutting’ a covenant. Often the word used for making a covenant is karath (Strong 03772) meaning to cut, which highlights the idea of sacrifice.
Centuries before the Lord Jesus would speak in sacrificial terms of His body and His blood to His disciples in that upper room in Jerusalem, the Old Testament had pointed forward to His death. From the words that revealed to Adam that the Seed of the woman, at great cost to Himself, would bruise the head of the serpent, Gen.3.15, to Zechariah’s prophecy of awaking the sword of Divine justice against One Who was both Jehovah’s Shepherd and His Fellow, Zech.13.7, His death has been prominent. Psalmists like David recorded words we rightly relate to the Lord’s sufferings on the cross: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me” Ps.22.1; “They gave Me also gall for My meat; and in My thirst they gave Me vinegar to drink”Ps.69.21; “Hide not thy face from Me in the day when I am in trouble” Ps.102.2.
Among the passages that help us understand the scope of the Lord’s sacrificial work at Calvary are those that legislate for the Levitical offerings or refer to their use. Those offerings prescribed in Leviticus chapters 1- 7 were not the first offerings brought to God by His creatures. Cain brought the fruit of the ground, and his brother Abel the firstling of his flock “and of the fat thereof” Gen.4.3,4. We cannot say with certainty that these were the first animal sacrifices and cereal offerings offered. We do know that later the patriarchs Noah, Abraham and Jacob offered burnt offerings, and Jacob a drink offering, Gen.8.20; 22.2-13; 31.54; 35.14; 46.1, so too did Job and Moses’ father-in-law, Job1.5; Ex.18.12. However, we cannot conclude from the silence of Scripture that Adam, Enoch, Isaac and other patriarchs did not present offerings.
In Exodus, the sacrifices were largely associated with the whole congregation: the passover, the ratification of the Sinai covenant, the morning and evening sacrifices, even the consecration of Aaron and his house as priests related to the nation, not the individual. In contrast, the early chapters of Leviticus deal with individual exercises. If an Israelite was rejoicing in the goodness of God, he had the opportunity to bring a burnt offering, a peace offering or a meal offering. If he was weighed down with a burden of guilt he could bring a sin or trespass offering.
The reader of the New Testament is familiar with a number of presentations of Christ’s death, each of which conveys truth about its never-to-be-repeated character. That death was Christ’s exodus, which He accomplished at Jerusalem, Lk.9.31; it was the laying down of His life, the giving of Himself and of His life, Jn.10.11,17; Eph.5.25. The Christian’s heart is touched as he or she reads telling phrases such as “the death of His Son” Rom.5.10; “the Lord’s death” 1Cor.11.26; “the suffering of death” Heb.2.9; “the death of the cross” Phil.2.8; “the sufferings of Christ” 1Pet.1.11; “suffered … for us” 1Pet.2.21; 3.18; 4.1. In certain contexts, our lifestyle is challenged by references to “the fellowship of His suffering” Phil.3.10; (see also 2Cor.1.5; 1Pet.4.13). Equally demanding of the believer are the many references to the cross of Christ.
The Levitical offerings were initiated in a context that Israel’s patriarchs had never known. From the call of Abraham, he and his seed knew relationship with God Who later was known as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The God of glory had appeared to Abram, leading him from Mesopotamia to Canaan, Acts 7.2. However, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph never saw the God of glory; despite the fact that fourteen times we read that God would be with them, but He never dwelt with them as He did with Israel in the tabernacle Moses constructed. Again through Moses, that nation knew Jehovah’s name, they saw the glory cloud fill the tabernacle and they heard His voice “out of the midst of the fire” Ex.19.9,19; 20.18,22; Deut.4.36. The Levitical offerings were established in the context of a nation in whose midst Jehovah dwelt.
When the Hebrews writer categorised the Levitical offerings, he identified four groupings: sacrifices, offerings, burnt offerings and offerings for sin, Heb.10.5,6:
- sacrifices, a term used of all kinds of eucharistic offerings, i.e. peace offerings
- offerings (i.e. the meal offerings, firstfruits, the wave sheaf of the feast of firstfruits, and the dough of the feast of weeks)
- burnt offerings
- offerings for sin which included both sin and trespass offerings.
The last category comprises those we describe as non-savour offerings. The distinction between sweet savour offerings and non-savour offerings is not one based on human perception, but one that is identifiable from the text of Scripture. Part or whole offerings were offered on the brazen altar and consumed in its flame. It is there that the reader is able to discern the distinction between the sweet savour and non-savour offerings. The verb used of burning in respect of the burnt offering, the peace offering and the meal offering is the same word used of burning incense and burning the burnt offering, Ex.30.7,20 (Strong 6999). It occurs in Leviticus chapters 1, 2 and 3 in respect of the burnt offering, the peace offering and the meal offering. Particular note should be made of the burnt offering, which is better translated “ascending offering,” because all of it ascended as a sweet smell to the nostrils of God.
The sin and trespass offerings were treated differently. There were parts of the bullock for a sin offering that were burned on the altar; in which case the same verb relating to burning of incense is used. Those parts included “the fat that covereth the inwards, and the caul that is above the liver and the two kidneys and the fat that is upon them” Ex.29.13 et al. However, when the remainder of the bullock was carried outside the camp, it was burned fiercely (Strong 8313) until the body was consumed. There is no suggestion of a sweet savour in respect of that burning. That same verb is used of the consuming of the red heifer, which is also classified as a sin offering, Num.19.9,17. This chapter will address the sin, trespass and the red heifer offerings.
Until the Lord called unto Moses out of the tabernacle of the congregation, there had been no guidance for individual exercise. The instruction in Exodus chapter 12 was for “all the congregation of Israel”; “the whole assembly of the congregation shall kill it [the lamb] in the evening”; and “All the congregation shall keep it” Ex.12.3,6,47. The ratification of the covenant and the daily burnt offerings were also exercises of “the whole congregation” Ex.24.4-8; 29.38-46. However, Leviticus encourages the individual to bring offerings: “If any man of you bring an offering” 1.2; “… when any will offer a meal offering” 2.1; “… if his oblation be a sacrifice of peace offering” 3.1; “If a soul sin” 4.2; “If a soul commit a trespass” 5.15,17; 6.2. When the Lord called Moses in Leviticus chapter 1, the deliverance from Egypt was behind them and God had covenanted with them, anticipating that an individual Israelite might wish to express voluntarily his delight in his God. Sinai was also behind them, where they had heard the voice of God speak; the voice struck terror in their hearts as it set out the Ten Commandments. “The law entered that the offence might abound” Rom.5.20. Some earnest Israelite might have said: “I had not known sin but by the law, for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet” Rom.7.7. God knew that the earnest individual, who experienced the presence of sin in his life, without access to offering to the God he offended, would be plunged into deep despair.
Moved by gratitude, one man might have brought his burnt offering; burdened by guilt, another might have brought his sin or trespass offering. Neither individual need leave the tabernacle wondering how God viewed his exercise, for God had declared of one: “It is accepted for him to make atonement for him” Lev.1.4; of the other He had said: “It shall be forgiven him” Lev.4.20,26,31,35; 5.10,13,16,18; 6.7.
It may seem strange that 1500 years after they became custodians of God’s Law, Israel should hear Peter say to them: “I wot [know] that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers” Acts 3.17. Some years later, one of their leaders owned he had been “a blasphemer, and a persecutor and injurious”; he added: “but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief” 1Tim.1.13. For centuries the nation had been guilty of sins of ignorance, as Lev.4.2,13,22,27 testify. There were things that were hidden from their eyes, Lev.4.13; 5.2,3,4, some of which came later to their knowledge, Lev.4.28; 5.3,4. There were matters in which they were clearly guilty, Lev.4.13,22,27; 5.2,4.
Among those exercised about their relationship with God, there would be individuals who had sinned or trespassed. A great variety of offerings was permissible, where sin or trespass was recognised by the guilty party: a young bullock, a male kid of goats, a female kid of the goats, a female lamb, two turtle doves or two young pigeons or even a tenth deal of fine flour without the accompanying oil and frankincense associated with the meal offering. In cases of trespass, financial reparation might be required. The range of offerings permitted in respect of sin or trespass was wider than that relating to the burnt offering. Israel’s God was ensuring that, where a sin or trespass was the result of ignorance, the guilty party need not languish in despair nor dare he treat lightly the offence committed. It has been said, “He who formed the heart knew what it wanted and would meet that need as soon as He righteously could.”1
- 1 Stuart, C E. “Thoughts on Sacrifices”, Words of Truth. Robert L Allan, London, 1870.
With regards to an individual who had sinned, no matter his status, we note that:
- God prescribed the offering needed to effect restoration of the sinner to enjoy relationship with God
- Moses described for generations to come how that sinner should proceed
- The sinner recognised his guilt and provided the offering prescribed by God
- The priest’s task was to ensure that the holy God was magnified even in the forgiveness of the sinner.
The Sin Offering
In the Divine prescription presented to the nation, God took account of the measure of responsibility (or influence) the sinner exercised over others, the ability of that individual sinner to bring an offering and the suitability of the offering he should offer; if it was an animal, it must be without blemish, a turtledove or pigeon must be young, and flour must be fine.
If the Priest that is Anointed do Sin – 4.3-12
Clearly, the sin of the anointed priest was a very serious matter that could affect adversely the relationship of the whole nation with its God. Indeed, Lev.4.3, in R.V. translates: “If the anointed priest shall sin so as to bring guilt on the people …” The language in the expression “the priest that is anointed” need not restrict the application of this section to the high priest, for Aaron and his sons were anointed, not just Aaron, Ex.29.7; 30.30. However, some, including Jewish translators, restrict this section to the sin of the high priest, on whom the whole nation depended for undertaking the exercises associated with the Day of Atonement [Yom Kippur], Leviticus chapter 16 and 23.26-32. In particular, the high priest had to venture within the second veil, “not without blood” Heb.9.7, to secure the nation’s relationship with God, on an annual basis. We rejoice that our High Priest has not “entered into the holy places made with hands … but into heaven itself” Heb.9.24. He has not entered on the basis of the blood of calves and goats but “by His own blood”, the guarantee that He has obtained eternal redemption, Heb.9.12. We do not need to fear that our High Priest might sin.
We do not read that the anointed priest sinned through ignorance, or that he sinned presumptuously, Lev.4.3. Had he (or any other among the tribes of Israel) sinned presumptuously, there would have been no forgiveness, indeed he would have been cut off from among his people, Num.15.30,31; Deut.12.25. (For which cause, even David prayed: “Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins” Ps.19.13.) The common people might sin through ignorance, but “the priest’s lips should keep knowledge”, and others “should seek the law at his mouth” Mal.2.7. Nonetheless, if the priest sinned and sought forgiveness there was provision made for him, but neither he nor any other sinner in Israel could choose for himself what animal he should bring.
The requirements outlined in Lev.4.3-12 are worthy of note:
- Offering of a young bullock without blemish brought to the door of the tabernacle, “before the LORD” v.4
- Identification of the sinner with the offering by laying his hand upon its head, v.4
- Killing of the bullock, “before the LORD” v.4
- Bringing of the bullock’s blood to the tabernacle, v.5
- Sprinkling of the blood seven times, “before the LORD”, before the veil of the sanctuary, v.6
- Putting blood upon the altar of sweet incense, “before the LORD” v.7
- Pouring all the blood of the bullock at the base of the altar of burnt offering at the door of the tabernacle, v.7
- Taking all the fat of the bullock, the kidneys and the caul above the liver, vv.8,9
- Burning upon the altar of burnt offering the fat and the internal organs that were removed, v.10
- Removing the whole bullock, its skin and its flesh, its head, its legs and its inwards, even its dung to a place outside the camp, where the ashes of sacrifices were poured, vv.11,12.
The level of detail is noteworthy. We note the four matters that are to take place “before the LORD” vv.4 (twice), 6,7: the suitability of the offering, vv.3,4; its sacrifice, v.4; the sprinkling of its blood, v.6; and the sanctification of the altar at which the priest would function, v.7. The eye of God took in all that pertained to those four matters. There would be aspects of the ritual that onlookers could see: the condition of the animal and its death, but the phrase “before the LORD” is to remind the reader that the Lord Himself was scrutinising these matters.
We observe that burning takes place in two places and for two purposes. At the altar of burnt offering, there was the burning as a sweet odour of the fat and certain inner organs, and then outside the camp the burning to ashes of the whole bullock. As noted above, the verb relating to burning as incense (Strong 6999) is used of the sweet savour offerings, whilst the burning of the carcase is that which characterises the non-savour offerings. We pause to remind ourselves that in every aspect of the Lord laying down His life in sacrifice, there was that which was a sweet smell to the nostrils of God: His willingness to suffer, His dedication to the Father’s will, His energy of will dedicated to secure the Father’s purpose, His endurance never tainted by threat or resentment as men did their worst to Him. What joy Heaven had in that holy Sufferer! How perfect His sacrifice! How fully He vindicated the throne of God! How great the glory of that death!
The burning (Strong 8313) outside the camp is commented on in Heb.13.12. The place chosen must have reminded a priest in particular of the destructive power of sin. It spelled out in physical terms the separation that sin of any kind causes in a soul’s relationship with God. Certainly Heb.13.12 is a reference to the ritual of the day of atonement when “the bullock for the sin offering, and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to … the holy place … they shall burn in the fire their skins, and their flesh, and their dung” without the camp” Lev.16.27. The blood that went in was from the animals whose bodies went out to guarantee the continued relationship with a holy God. We learn in the ceremonies of Leviticus chapters 4,5 and 16 the separation experienced at Calvary by the One Who cried: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Ps.22.1; Matt.27.46; Mk.15.34, and the efficacy of the blood that went in. We also learn in the consuming of the bodies of those animals outside the camp that sin is heinous in God’s sight.
We remind ourselves that the suitability of one offering for sins is the basis of our relationship with God. That offering was “without spot” Heb.9.14; “without blemish and without spot” 1Pet.1.19. We have learned too that our standing before God has been secured by Another’s sacrifice. Such a standing is not obtained by merit, nor our efforts to please God; of that the blood is the sign. The blood has also given us priestly rights, so that at the altar of incense our High Priest can offer our prayers and praises. Such is the glory of Christ’s death.
We note too the part played by the penitent. It is extremely limited: he brought the offering and he laid his hand upon its head, 4.4. The sense of the word is “to lean hard for support”; it is the admission that this animal will do what the offerer could not do. After he leaned on the animal, he had no more connection with it. We are reminded that we played no part in securing forgiveness of sin; all we did was to lean hard on Christ. However, we rejoice that, having come to Christ for salvation, we have a continuing relationship with Him, but not one that requires that He make another offering for sin, Heb.9.24-28.
If the Whole Congregation of Israel Sin through Ignorance – 4.13-21
The second case of sin considered in Leviticus chapter 4 is the sin of the whole congregation, vv.13-21. Again the telling phrase, “before the LORD”, occurs four times, vv.15 (twice), 17,18. The sin offering for the whole congregation was to be a young bullock, as was required for the sin of the anointed priest, because the sin they now acknowledged, again compromised the whole congregation’s welfare. The ritual was also similar to that followed by the anointed priest who sinned, except that the elders of the congregation were to lay their hands upon the head of the bullock, vv.4,15. The blood of the victim was then sprinkled before the veil of the sanctuary, vv.6,17, leaving any thoughtful Israelite with a deep impression of the seriousness of a sin affecting the nation’s relationship with God Himself.
The record does not close before the congregation hears: “It shall be forgiven them” 4.20; and a statement that will be echoed in the ritual for one of the common people who has sinned: “It is a sin offering” v.21, this time for the congregation.
When a Ruler hath Sinned – 4.22-26
Undoubtedly the anointed priest would have been a man with a profound influence on the nation. Although operating in a different sphere, so too was the ruler or prince, Numbers chapter 7. He who bore the ancestral staff as head of a tribe, was not only likely to be wealthy, but also one whose leadership would be acknowledged by many. The sinner may be a prince; nonetheless he cannot choose what offering he will bring. He must bring a kid of the goats, a male without blemish. In the public way that has been evident in vv.1-21, he will lean on the head of the goat and kill it, before the priest’s work can begin. The blood will not be carried into the tabernacle to be sprinkled before the veil, but placed by the priest’s finger on the horns of the altar and then poured out at the base of the altar, that his communion with God might be restored. His guilt having been dealt with, perhaps soon he might willingly bring a burnt offering in gratitude for how God has forgiven him. On that same altar, the priest will place the parts of the burnt offering in order. The prince will then recall hearing those important words: “It shall be forgiven him” 4.26.
If Any One of the Common People Sin – 4.27-35; 5.6-13
The commoner too might sin. His role in the nation was likely to be less assertive than that of priest or prince, which may be reflected in the required offering being a kid of the goats, a female without blemish, 4.28. The blood will be dealt with in the same way as the blood of the prince’s offering and there will also be something of fragrance for the altar of burnt offering. If he did not possess a female goat, he could bring a ewe lamb where once again a similar ritual would be followed. In each case those beautiful words would be heard: “It shall be forgiven him” 4.31,35.
Only in respect of the common people do we read: “if he be not able …” 5.7,11. There is no inference that his sin is considered less serious than that of the priest or the prince, although his influence may be considerably less. God is not highlighting the degree of his liability. In using the phrase “if he be not able …”, God is addressing the suitability of the offering as well as the ability of the sinner, so turtle doves, pigeons and even the tenth part of an ephah of flour, are specified, 5.7,11. Except in the case of the fine flour, the blood reached the altar. If the offerer could only afford a tenth of an ephah of fine flour, 5.12, his offering was not despised by the gracious God he served; it was burned (as incense) “upon the offerings of the LORD made by fire” 5.12 (R.V.)2 The acceptability of both the turtle doves, pigeons and the fine flour is also vouchsafed in the repeated expression: “It is a sin offering” 5.9,12. How gracious of God!
- 2 The A.V. reads: “according to the offerings made by fire unto the Lord.”
Today, when every Christian should have access to the Word of God and its teaching, there should be an ever-increasing appreciation of the value of the precious blood that was shed at Calvary. If we sin, we recall with clarity: “The blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanseth us from all sin” 1Jn.1.7.
The Trespass Offering
The legislation for the trespass offerings is based on an entirely different principle from that underpinning the sin offering. No account is taken of the standing of the one who had sinned. Indeed the offering in every case had to be a ram without blemish, but the reparation differentiated between the trespasses even if committed by persons of the same social or official standing.
If a Soul Commit a Trespass – 5.14-6.7
Although the trespass offering is closely associated with the sin offering, the introductory formula, “And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying” v.14, announces a new section dealing with the trespass offering.
The constant emphasis on blood (except in the case of the very poor commoner) in the ritual of the sin offering would underscore the emphasis on purification, the necessary cleansing from sin that would enable the sinner to know communion with his God and His people. The distinct emphasis on reparation within the legislation of the trespass offering is not mentioned in respect of the sin offering. The reparation for damages was to be estimated “after the shekel of the sanctuary” and a fifth part added, 5.15,16; 6.5.
The focus of the legislation is not wholly on the injured party. The requirement to bring a ram of the trespass offering emphasises that the matter must be dealt with before the Lord. The Divine requirement specifies that the offering be a ram. The unchanging demand of a male brings forward the grievous actions of the man who has trespassed in the sight of the Lord. Again, as with the sin offering, the cause could be ignorance, 5.15,17,18. Of the three verbs dealing with sin in chapters 4.1-6.7, one only occurs in relation to the trespass offering where the verb qualifies the cognate noun, so it could read “trespass a trespass” in 5.15; 6.2. It carries the sense of treachery and deceit that would be an affront to Jehovah. Yet the trespasser could hear those welcome words; “It shall be forgiven him” 5.16,18; 6.7.
The Law of the Sin and Trespass Offerings – 6.24-7.7
The law of the sin offering and that of the trespass offering are very similar, so similar that the reader is not surprised to read that “there is one law for them” 7.7. We learn from the two laws that the sacrifice was to be killed in the place where the burnt offering was slain, 6.25; 7.2; and that both are “most holy” 6.29; 7:6. We note that in all the cases dealt with in Lev.4.1-5.13, something from the offering was burned on the altar as a sweet savour to God.
There are distinctions, too, between the two laws. The blood of the sin offering was sprinkled before the vail in the holy place, 4.6; or at the side of the altar, placed on the horns of the altar and then poured at its base, 4.25, whereas the law of the trespass offering required the blood to be sprinkled round about the altar, 7.2. The sin offering took account of a man’s standing before God, regardless of his standing before men. The trespass offering focussed on the scope of a life being lived. The deceit that caused the culprit to lie, perjure himself and threaten violence that might accompany robbery might have touched many other lives, 6.2-5. How different a life lived in the light of the altar! From that altar there might emanate ever increasing waves of blessing to others.
“He is not clean; surely he is not clean” 1Sam.20.26, Saul concluded with some satisfaction, before inquiring about David’s absence from dinner at the beginning of a particular month. His conclusion was wholly unfounded and should have troubled any one who overheard him speak in such terms of David. More troubling, too, was his lack of concern that one of his servants had been defiled in some way. Had Saul reflected on Numbers chapter 19, he would have realised that defilement in any man or woman in Israel was a cause for concern. The same is true today with respect to any brother or sister.
W. Kelly comments: “What the great atonement day is to the book of Leviticus, the red heifer is to the book of Numbers.”3 C.H. Mackintosh writes: “The red heifer is pre-eminently a wilderness type. It was God’s provision for the way.”4 As Mackintosh observes, the ritual of the red heifer “prefigures the death of Christ as a purification for sin, to meet our need in passing through a defiling world.”
- 3 Kelly, W. “The Bible Treasury”. July 1912.
- 4 Mackintosh, C. H. “Notes on Numbers”. Loizeaux Brothers, 1882.
The chronology of the Book of Numbers is relatively straightforward. The book has seven time markers, the first month of the second year “after they were come out of Egypt”; 9.1, and the fourteenth day of that first month, 9.3,5,11. The days noted in the second month of the second year are two; the first day of the second month, 1.1 and the twentieth day of the month, 10.11. In 20.1, the first month of what was the fortieth year is mentioned, cf. 20.28; 33.38; Deut.2.1-7. The remaining dates are found in chapter 33: “the fifteenth day of the first month” of the first year, 33.3, and “the first day of the fifth month” of the fortieth year. 33.38. It would seem most unlikely that the water of separation would be initiated in the fortieth year of the journey from Egypt to Canaan; most probably it was a provision made for Israel in the early years of their wilderness journey.
Numbers chapter 19 is set in the wilderness where defilement would be easily contracted. Death stalked the scene: moral death, spiritual death and physical death. We read of carcases strewn in the wilderness, to use the language of Heb.3.17. The judgment of God was to fall on all Israelites over 20 years of age who had murmured against the Lord, 14.29. It has been calculated that on average 45 people died every day, which inevitably meant that every day many were unclean because of contact with death. Five illustrations of how this could happen are listed in the chapter: contact with the body of someone who died a violent death or a natural death, vv.14,16; or with the bone of a dead person or a grave, v.16; or with one who was unclean, v.22. The God Who provided the ritual involving the red heifer cared about the problem more than Saul did, and is still concerned today about our becoming defiled as we move through a godless scene where men do not have, nor do they want, the life of God. Contact with them can defile. Sadly, we can all recall cases where the defilement of the world disrupted the fellowship of a saint we loved, a common cause being contact with those who were either without Divine life or without the regular application of the water of separation.
The provision of the water of separation, using ashes from the burning of the red heifer was God’s provision but only for sins of ignorance, not for presumptuous sins. No matter who the sinner was, whether a ruler or one of the common people, provided the sin was involuntary contact with sin or death, there was provision for its forgiveness. This provision was not to replace, but to be additional to the earlier provision of the sin offering in Leviticus chapters 4 and 5. Num.19.9,17 (R.V.) dispels any doubt about the purpose of this offering; “It is a sin offering” v.9; “They shall take the ashes of the burning of the sin offering” v.17.
In Leviticus chapter 4, when the whole congregation sinned through ignorance, the congregation was to offer a bullock. Here also, although the term “congregation” is not used, “the children of Israel” provided the red heifer, v.2; it is not provided by one particular guilty person, as in Leviticus 4.3,22,27; 5.6,7,11,15,18; 6.6. However, there are many ways in which this particular offering and the associated ritual were different:
- It was offered in view of unintentional defilement, as the future tenses show in Num.19.11-20
- Unlike Leviticus chapters 1-7, Jehovah speaks to Moses and to Aaron at the same time
- It is the only time the colour of the offering is specified
- It is the only occasion that Eleazar, Aaron’s son, is charged with offering a particular offering
- The sin offering was slain at the altar, but the red heifer outside the camp
- Its blood was not carried into the holy place but Eleazar was to sprinkle it seven times before the tabernacle of the congregation
- The ritual involved several men, all but one of whom were affected by their involvement: Eleazar the priest, v.7; the one who slew the red heifer, v.3: the one who burned the heifer, v.8; the clean man who gathered up the ashes, v.10, and the man that sprinkled the unclean man, v18
- Cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet were burned with the red heifer
- The ashes were kept and used.
The Red Heifer – A Distinctive Offering
The colour red was used in the construction of the tabernacle. One set of coverings was rams’ skins dyed red. Was the colour there a reminder of the intensity of devotion that might take a ram into death itself? However, the red heifer is female, not male. Usually in the animal world, the female is seen as less aggressive than the male. So the heifer is likely to be more passive than the bull, and the sheep than the ram. It is to be noted particularly that the skin of this heifer has not been dyed red; it is intrinsically red.
As we reflect on this distinction, we recall that our Lord Jesus was affected by the external circumstances through which He passed. Unlike other men, He was not inured to the defiling influences around Him. They grieved and caused Him to condemn the perpetrators and to defend the victims. How many widows in Israel could have testified to that! He was also deeply, inwardly motivated to move in the pathway of obedience that His God had laid before Him. When we sense the contaminating influences of the world, we need to look off unto Jesus. When we feel we are being contaminated even in thought, we need to flee to Him.
There was more that was distinctive about the red heifer sacrificed. We learn that it was without spot or blemish and that it had never known a yoke. Not only was there to be no uncertainty about its pedigree, it was to be unblemished in its appearance and unbroken by the yoke that men forced upon it. There was to be no impurity in its pedigree, no imperfection in its appearance and no implication that it may have been ploughing an unholy furrow, as Samson’s wife had been, Judg.14.18. We know that the red heifer pointed forward faintly to One Who was God’s Son, unblemished in character and never the instrument of human will, whether that will was Peter’s, Caiaphas’, Pilate’s or Herod’s, Matt.16.23; 26.63-65; Lk.23.9; Jn.19.11.
Associated with the heifer in its death are three specific items: “cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet” v.6. 1Kgs.4.33 records that in his 3,000 proverbs and 1,005 songs, Solomon spoke of the trees “from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon unto the hyssop that springeth out the wall.” Clearly the cedar tree and the hyssop were at the two extremes of the vegetable kingdom. The mighty cedar might remind us of how easily we can have inflated ideas about ourselves or our achievements. Yet, at the other extreme, the lowly hyssop is marked by an energy that reminds us of how easily we can glory in our false humility, while we seek attention like the springing hyssop. These are traits of the flesh that can defile. In the scarlet we see those who have an outstanding ability in perhaps one area of living, and they might glory in that one area of achievement. Certainly scarlet attracts attention, so limiting its application only to those with an outstanding ability might seem to excuse that trait of the flesh that glories in receiving attention, even if for the wrong reason.
The purification of one who had been healed from leprosy involved “cedar wood, scarlet and hyssop” Lev.14.6, although the offerings and the rituals were quite different. However, the order of the three additions differed from “cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet”, as found at v.6.
The Red Heifer – A Different Priest
In Num.19.3, Eleazar is brought forward as the priest who would sacrifice the red heifer offering. Readers have met Eleazar in the dreadful hour when his two elder brothers were summarily devoured by fire, Leviticus chapter 10. On that occasion, although face to face with the demands of the holiness of God, they did not fully comply with Moses’ instruction to eat the sin offering. Unlike them, Eleazar does fully obey the Lord in this matter. Another unidentified individual slew the heifer, but it fell to Eleazar to sprinkle the blood and to cast in “cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet” after the fire began to consume the sacrifice, v.6.
Why did Aaron not officiate on this occasion? Certainly Aaron was an old man, but there is no hint that, as he grew older, Aaron withdrew from the more demanding duties, such as those associated with the day of atonement. Although by this time, Aaron and his younger brother Moses were probably centenarians, Eleazar was not the officiating priest in lieu of his father and because of his father’s advanced age. Others have drawn attention to the prohibition upon priests defiling themselves for the dead, Lev.21.2,11. However, Eleazar was also a priest, though not the high priest, so that the explanation of Eleazar’s role is unrelated to the prohibition of Leviticus chapter 21.
Eleazar was one of the few of his generation who had not died in the wilderness by the time we reach Numbers chapter 19. The generation that would have appointed a captain and returned to Egypt, were almost all gone, Num.14.4. That generation had seen Jehovah’s glory and His works, yet they tempted Him ten times, 14.22,23. Eleazar was well aware of the number of deaths. The Lord knew that Eleazar’s father was not to enter the land, again for reasons of disobedience, Num.20.24. Numbers chapter 31 records God’s vengeance on the Midianites and the execution of males and females, which rendered many Israelites unclean. It was Eleazar the priest who taught the nation that the water of separation was a necessary step to their entering the camp. We understand why God chose Eleazar to officiate in that first sacrifice of the red heifer; it was in view of the continuing need to deal with uncleanness.
The Red Heifer – The Distant Place
It is evident in the instructions that underpinned Eleazar’s task that the heifer was not offered on the brazen altar; neither was its blood applied on the horns of the altar nor taken into the holy place. Every act took place “outside the camp” vv.3,9. Each participant was left in no doubt as to the seriousness of a breach in relationship with God caused by contamination in an unholy, unclean world.
Using his finger, Eleazar was to sprinkle that blood outside the camp but “toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times” v.4 (R.V.)5 The lesson was plain: sin had come in, so sacrifice was necessary; and without that sacrifice, the guilty man would remain apart from the people in the camp, the focal point of which was the tent of meeting. All who participated in this ritual or who observed it, would be aware of the wide circle affected by the entrance of uncleanness into the camp.
- 5 The A.V. reads: “directly before the tabernacle of the congregation”; J.N.D., “directly before the tent of meeting”.
The Red Heifer – The Diligent Men
As noted above, the uncleanness of even one person involved several others, and it involved them in a way that would have been costly to them. Who were they? What did it cost them? The ritual involved several men:
- Eleazar the priest, who consequently was declared “unclean until the evening” v.7
- the one who slew the red heifer, v.3
- the one who burned the heifer, was also “unclean until the evening” vv.5,8
- the clean man who gathered up the ashes, again was “unclean until the evening” v.10
- the clean man who sprinkled the unclean man, v.21.
The responsibilities upon Eleazar were great. A number of significant actions were required of him:
- He was to lead the sacrificial heifer outside the camp, v.3
- The animal was to be slain “before his face” v.3
- He was to take of the blood and sprinkle it towards the tent of meeting, v.4
- The heifer was to be burned in his sight, v.5
- He was to cast into the fire “cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet” v.6
- He was to wash his clothes and bathe his flesh in water, v.7
- He was to re-enter the camp but remain unclean until the evening.
Those who shepherd the flock of God in an assembly of God’s people are aware of the cost to shepherds when a saint is out of touch with the Lord. Often long hours are spent trying to understand what has gone wrong in that life. In preparation for, and subsequent to, each such session, much time is spent in prayer and, in certain instances, in re-reading in private the relevant Scriptures. Nor should we underestimate the emotional strain on those handling such a case: the pain, the sleepless nights and the many tears.
The Red Heifer – The Death that Cleansed
The pilgrim nation’s clamant need until they reached Canaan would be cleansing for the contamination from without. The gracious God, Whose holiness could not ignore contamination, even if contracted unavoidably, would not require a red heifer to be slain on each occasion. The water of separation was made available by mixing the ashes with water. Whoever looked on the ashes would remember the fire and how it consumed6 totally the heifer’s “skin and … flesh and … blood and … dung” v.5, but not to bring pleasure to the Divine nostrils, but rather to convey to the onlookers the seriousness of defilement.
- 6 Strong, 8313, Hebrew seraph.
In chapter 8.7, “the water of purifying” [literally “sin-water”] was used in the consecrating ceremony for the Levites. No instructions are given in chapter 8 as to its manufacture. However, clearly in both chapters 8 and 19, the water was for the ceremonial removal of sin before their sin offering would be offered. Twice we meet the phrase “purification for sin” in 19.9,17. The cognate verb occurs in 19.12 (twice),19,20. Here the provision is not for the Levites alone but for the nation as a whole, after the red heifer had been offered.
As we Christians move homeward through the wilderness, there will be unavoidable uncleanness that is not the result of our disobedience or carelessness. We need to keep looking back to Calvary and reminding ourselves of God’s estimation of the awfulness of sin, and applying this to our lives by the power of the Spirit, of which the running water may be a reminder, v.17. Often, as in the ordinance that Israel received, restoration to the enjoyment of communion with our God, a holy God, will require the exercise of others, vv.18-22.
This Man … Offered One Sacrifice for Sins – Heb.10.12
Once a year, on the day of atonement, Aaron and his successors sprinkled blood on the mercy seat and God passed over the sins of the people. Now that the blood of Christ has been shed and is ever before God, propitiation has been made in the holiest by the High Priest, Heb.2.17. The mercy seat is red and God can justify the ungodly. God can do so because that blood is the abiding witness that God has been glorified, the demands of Divine justice met and propitiation made.
For centuries Israel’s priests made daily offerings that could “never take away sins” Heb.10.11. Paul shows that God passed over the sins that were committed in the past through the forbearance of God, Rom.3.25. The word “forbearance” is the classical word for armistice or suspension of hostilities. Was God righteous in declaring, “It shall be forgiven him [or them]” Lev.4.20,26,31,35? God makes two important declarations now that Christ is set forth as the mercy seat: the first is that sins committed in the past are remitted and the other is that God “might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” Rom.3.26.
The blood is the vindication of God’s apparent tolerance of sin in the past, but not the blood of bullock or goat or lamb. Before Christ came, God exercised His forbearance in respect of penitents who took God at His word and brought the required offering. God forgave the sinner on the ground of the blood of Christ that would be shed. All that Christ was, gave character to that blood. God now declares His righteousness not in blood but “in His blood” Rom.3.25, i.e. the blood of Christ. Heb.9.12-14 acknowledges the need for the purifying of the flesh, if relationship with a holy God is to be maintained. The verses bring together the offering of bullocks, goats and the red heifer, but in contrast with Christ offering Himself through the eternal Spirit without spot to God; the offering of those animals could not purge the conscience from dead works to enable the individual to serve the living God.
The presentation of the Lord Jesus as the long-awaited sin offering impresses the reader with two roles that He filled: He was both officiating Priest and the Offering: “This Man … offered one sacrifice for sins” Heb.10.12; i.e. He offered Himself. His active role as Priest is evident in the verb “offered”; as the offering, He is portrayed as more passive:
- “He was bruised for our iniquities” Isa.53.5
- “He was led as a lamb to the slaughter” Isa.53.7, J.N.D.
- “Jehovah … shalt make His soul an offering for sin” Isa.53.10, J.N.D.
- “He was made sin for us” 2Cor.5.21, J.N.D.
We rejoice in the words “Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin” Heb.10.18. What should the child of God do if he becomes aware that he has sinned? The apostle John answers that question: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness … If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: And He is the propitiation for our sins” 1Jn.1.9; 2.1,2.
As noted above, even in dealing with sin and trespass in the rituals of Leviticus chapters 1-7, there was something burned as a sweet savour to God. Therein lay another pointer to that one sacrifice for sin that will need no repetition. Heaven is still filled with the fragrance of that sweet-smelling savour, Eph.5.2. God Himself has “smelled a sweet savour” Gen.8.21. In that one sacrifice, not only is the sinner justified by blood, Rom.5.9, but God also is glorified in respect of the sin question. The basis has been laid on which the purpose of God is built and the worth and value of Christ and His offering are revealed. Nonetheless, in contemplating the One upon Whom “the chastisement of our peace” was laid, we need to remember that this One and His great sacrifice are “most holy”, as we see Him “stricken, smitten of God and afflicted” Isa.53.4,5.
If any man sin …
Somewhere in the ranks of Israel, there may have been some who said in their heart: “Soon we will leave this troublesome wilderness, and reach the land God is to give us. When we reach that land, we won’t need sin offerings and trespass offerings and the water of purification. Then we won’t sin; we won’t become defiled.” How wrong they were! The causes of sin and defilement were not restricted to the wilderness. Certainly, there were times when “much discouraged because of the way,”7 they put the Lord to proof, according to 1Cor.10.9.
- 7 Num.21.4. J.J. Stubbs notes that “Jewish tradition considers this the last and worst of Israel’s apostasies in the wilderness” (Stubbs, J. J. “Numbers – What the Bible Teaches”. Kilmarnock: John Ritchie Ltd, 2003).
We are among those who have learned at Calvary the awfulness of sin, yet we need to hear of God’s provision, “if any man sin” 1Jn.2.1. Having forgotten the exhortation which spoke to them as unto children, some may need the warning: “Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled” Heb.12.5,15. Until our wilderness journey is over, we need to heed such warnings.