The Red Heifer

The Red Heifer

The Red Heifer.

“According to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood. For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.” (Hebrews 9:22).

What is this ritual? At first glance, God’s peculiar instructions to Moses and Aaron were puzzling and mysterious. There appeared to be no logical reason for parts of this ritual as God explained it (Numbers 19). A perfect, unblemished red heifer, one who hasn’t been yoked, was to be taken outside the camp and slaughtered. This heifer has to be completely red, and it had to be a young female cow that had not borne a calf. After the butchering of the heifer, the attending priest was required to sprinkle some of the cow’s blood seven times directly in front of the Tabernacle. The dead heifer was then to be completely burned, including its hide, its flesh, everything. Into this fire the priest was to place some cedar wood, a branch of hyssop, and a scarlet woolen thread. Both the man who burned the heifer and the eye-witness priest were then required to clean their clothes, take a bath, and be considered unclean till the evening. The priest was then instructed to gather the ashes and make a thin paste as they mixed the ashes with clean “living” water from a nearby stream. This mixture is called the “water of purification” by the Lord. “It is for purifying from sin,” says Yahweh (Nu. 19:9). If someone is deemed unclean, then a branch of hyssop is dipped into the watered down paste and is applied to the person’s tent, his vessels, and his body. The mixture of ash and water will purify the unclean person in the sight of God.

Why? The apparent reason for this ritual is made clear in Numbers 19. Anyone who has touched a dead body, or made any contact with a dead person, is considered unclean and expelled from the community, unable to worship or offer sacrifices at the Tabernacle. Such a person must undergo this ritual of purification before allowed back into the camp, whether to simply reside or to worship God. God is serious about this, and is making it abundantly clear that death is the ultimate indignity for those born in His image. Death is the supreme source of impurity and defilement, because it is the final result of sin. Death defiles the world, while God is about life. God is a life-giver and the author of life. Death is unacceptable in a spiritual sense, and is an extreme impurity that has to be dealt with. Death is a stark reminder of human mortality, while God is divinely immortal. This ritual was the way of God’s choosing to keep those boundaries of the mortal and the immortal, to maintain the divine order that separates death from life.

Death wish. Rabbi Jonathon Sacks added that there seems to be built into the human personality a deep-seated death wish, and this ritual is connected to that. “This ritual is directed against one of the most powerful and dangerous of all human drives: the death instinct.” (Covenant and Conversation: Numbers). Rabbi Sacks goes on to say that this death instinct, this inner impulse for self-destruction, overrides our pleasure instinct. This red heifer ritual then is to make it clear that death is not God’s will, it is not something to surrender to, it is not be entertained as an acceptable way to look at life. And isn’t it interesting that the Mosaic law did not give in to this death wish. Judaism revealed a unique attitude toward death, distinct from the surrounding nations that worshiped death or obsessed over death, like Egypt. And the Israelites did not approve of trying to contact or speak with dead ancestors, which was very common. The Mosaic tradition established a religion based on life, not death. Death was profoundly unclean, and God made a way to purify oneself from that uncleanness. There must be an atonement for anything associated with death.

Why red? There have been a couple of explanations as to why the heifer had to be red, as opposed to brown or yellow or black and white. Some have said that red is a symbol of blood. Blood is seen as a life principle. Creatures can’t live without blood, and so red signifies that life which protects against death. Others believe that the color of red is associated with sin. “Come now, and let us reason together, says the Lord. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isaiah 1:18). The death of the heifer symbolizes the destruction of sin, then. Sins are red, and of course ashes become white. Maybe, as in a few other details of this ritual, God only knows. After all, God can mean both red as in blood and red as in sin.

Golden Calf or Red Calf? There is a rabbinic tradition in the Red Heifer ritual that it in some ways was established by God to rectify the horrendous sin of the Golden Calf. For one thing, Aaron was not allowed to manage the Red Heifer ritual. That role was reserved for an associate priest. Perhaps Aaron’s exclusion was due to his guilt in his complicity in the Golden Calf incident. Perhaps God also wanted to undo the effects of the Golden Calf on the people’s memory, and so a heifer, a young calf, was chosen as the centerpiece of this ritual. In the sinful case the calf was worshipped as a god. In the Red Heifer case, the calf was a means of purification from sin. Also, Moses’ reaction to the Golden Calf is strikingly similar to the ritual with the Red Heifer. He burned the Golden Calf in a great fire, he ground it into powdered ashes, and then mixed those ashes with water. So far, those actions are exactly the same as the Red heifer ritual. Amazingly, Moses made the Israelites drink this mixture, so they’d never forget or repeat this great sin. In the Red Heifer, the watered down ashes were not taken internally like that, but instead externally. Still it’s easy to see the many parallels between the sin of the Golden Calf and the redemption with the Red Heifer. Perhaps this is God’s way of undoing that major act of sinfulness.

Jesus is the Red Heifer.  Blood is sacred, says the Lord. Blood is holy, set apart from other aspects of creation. In the eyes of God, blood represents life. Life itself depends on blood. In fact, “the life of the flesh is in the blood.” (Lev. 17:11). Blood is a life principle flowing into the very structure of created life. Since the Fall in the Garden, the world has had a disastrous problem: sin. The result of sin is death. And the result of blood is life. So it naturally follows that blood is somehow the remedy for sin. Blood has to be involved if forgiveness is to happen, if life proves victorious over death. In God’s plan of redemption, His universal solvent is blood, it dissolves the presence and authority of sin.

God designed a blood sacrifice system in the Old Covenant that atoned for the sins of the Chosen People. As a God of justice and righteousness, He demanded a punishment for sin, and the blood of an animal sacrifice was put in place to satisfy that demand. Pure blood from unblemished and utterly innocent animals. Innocent blood was the only answer to the guilt of sin. But this sacrificial system was not meant to be permanently in place. It was ultimately an incomplete system in many ways. It required ongoing sacrifices; it was only a temporary atonement until the person sinned again; it was merely for external purposes, making the person ceremonially clean; it didn’t necessarily change the heart of the person making the offering. So the Mosaic system was adequate and God-ordained for a time. But it was only a shadow, a hint of a better system coming along in God’s perfect timing. It was a necessary beginning to what turned out to be a perfect end. In the Old Covenant, the Mosaic sacrifice was necessary but insufficient. The best was yet to come in the fullness of time.

Jesus was the perfect sacrifice hinted at in the animal sacrifice. He fulfilled all the requirements of the Old Covenant system… an unblemished, pure, innocent victim offering blood for atonement. Jesus completed the sacrificial system, so only one sacrifice, His, was needed. His blood brought forgiveness of all sins, by all people, for all time. At a superficial glance, it looks like God is out for blood. But God “doesn’t want blood, He wants life.” Only Jesus Christ, the Son of God, can offer his blood for eternal life, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). In Jewish tradition, the discovery of an unblemished red heifer signals the coming of the Messiah. Truer words were never spoken. Jesus is the Red Heifer. The Messiah has come.

“Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered Himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins.” (Hebrews 9:13-14).

 

One Reply to “The Red Heifer”

  1. What a beautiful and completely understandable explanation!! Your work should should be published!!! Thanks Steve!

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