Commentary on Numbers 19

Notes (NET Translation)

Death has featured in the preceding chapters (11-14, 16-17) and the older generation is destined to die in the wilderness, so, it is appropriate for this chapter to instruct the Israelites on how to become clean after contact with a corpse.

The ceremonial process of water purification rites outlined for the priests was extended to the common people in the subject of contact with the dead. Priests were rendered unclean by contact with the dead (Lev 21:1–3; 22:4–7), and Nazirites were restricted from contact with the dead (Num 6:6), lest they be rendered unclean and their period of sanctification be terminated. The common people became unclean if they touched anything ceremonially unclean, including a human corpse, and they were to live outside the camp during such periods of uncleanness (Lev 5:2–3; Num 5:2). Death carried a higher level of impurity, as is evidenced by the numerous ritual washings and bathings delineated both in the preparation phase and in the application procedures. Since death was such a common exposure for all persons, a special pragmatically feasible ritual was established for addressing this problem. Numbers 19 details the ritual purification process that would be continuously available to the people without having to sacrifice an animal every time there was a death in the family, so it facilitates the maintenance of a holy community of faith. Maintenance of purity and sanctity as a reflection of individual and community holiness in separation from the world’s forces is important for all who desire a healthy relationship with a holy God. At this point in the history of revelation, the means of maintaining this relationship included a special ritual process.1

To many modern people rites such as the one described here look like mumbo-jumbo, sheer magic that shows how primitive and unsophisticated the men of the Old Testament were. But it is now recognized by anthropologists that, whether the rituals are found in Africa or in ancient texts, their practitioners are not acting in ignorance. They are not doing something magical; rather, such ceremonies, just like ours, express the deepest truths about life as the society sees them.2

1 The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron:

2 “This is the ordinance of the law which the LORD has commanded: ‘Instruct the Israelites to bring you a red heifer without blemish, which has no defect and has never carried a yoke.

English “heifer” designates a cow that has not borne a calf, and it is nowhere near certain that such an animal was intended by the present law. One assumes that a degree of physical maturity is implied by the term pārāh, though we lack detailed information on animal husbandry in biblical Israel. Clearly, a pārāh is older than an ʿeglāh ‘calf’ (female), and, according to Mic 6:6, a yearling is called ʿēgel.3

The requirement that a cow be used that had never borne the yoke recalls a similar provision in Deut 21:3. The calf put to death over a perennial stream to expiate an unidentified murder was to be one that had never “drawn” the yoke (the Hebrew verb māšak). Further, we note that the expiatory gifts dispatched by the Philistines to propitiate the God of Israel were put in a wagon drawn by cows that had never borne the yoke (1 Sam 6:7). It is clear from context that those cows were intended as sacrifices (1 Sam 6:14). The notion underlying such requirements is that animals used in purificatory rites, like those in more usual types of sacrifices, should represent the best available, and should never have been employed for any profane purpose.4

The red cow ritual is a ḥattaʾt (v 9, sin/purification offering). A male cow is used in the ḥattaʾt for the high priest (Lev 4:1-12; 16:11) or for the community (Lev 4:13-21). Only females are used for a ḥattaʾt for the individual (Lev 4:22-35; Num 15:27-29). The ritual in this passage is for the individual Israelite and so uses a female cow. Since the ashes of the red cow are used to purify the entire population over time, the largest female domestic animal, a cow, is chosen. The color red (’ăḏummâ, which may be a reddish-brown) probably symbolizes blood. All sacrificial animals had to be without blemish or defect (Lev 22:17-25; Deut 17:1).

3 You must give it to Eleazar the priest so that he can take it outside the camp, and it must be slaughtered before him.

When the qualified cow had been selected, it was then presented to Eleazar, the priest and son of Aaron. Why would Eleazar be chosen instead of Aaron? Several reasons have been suggested. First, Aaron was the high priest, and all caution was taken to ensure that the high priest not become unclean so as to render him unqualified to perform regular ritual activities prescribed for him. The high priest was not to defile himself by going near a corpse, even that of his mother or father (Lev 21:11). Second, this ordinance was directed not only to the present but also to future generations. Aaron was now aging and would soon die in the latter stage of the forty-year wilderness experience (Num 20:22–29). Also this preparation took place outside the camp, the normal realm of uncleanness where persons having skin diseases and other infirmities were remanded. The high priest was prohibited from going outside the sanctuary, lest he potentially return with some unknown or inadvertent impurity (Lev 21:12). As the next in charge of the priestly corps, Eleazar escorted the cow outside the proximity of the tabernacle and then outside the camp of the twelve tribes of Israel to a designated area for the enactment of the ritual preparation. The cow was ritually slaughtered by another individual in the presence of Eleazar (lepanayw), thereby indicating priestly supervision of the slaughtering and other ritual preparation of the ashes.5

4 Eleazar the priest is to take some of its blood with his finger, and sprinkle some of the blood seven times directly in front of the tent of meeting.

Some translations imply that the blood is sprinkled toward the entrance to the tent of meeting. This makes more sense than the NET translation since the slaughter takes place outside the camp (v 3). The sprinkling consecrates the blood so it may act as a purgative. The number seven is the number of completeness.

5 Then the heifer must be burned in his sight — its skin, its flesh, its blood, and its offal is to be burned.

Other than the blood, the parts of the cow burned are the same as in Lev 4:11. The blood being burnt is unparalleled elsewhere in the Old Testament. The blood in the ashes is is the primary agent for the cleansing function of the purification offering.

6 And the priest must take cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet wool and throw them into the midst of the fire where the heifer is burning.

The same ingredients are used in the waters to cleanse the leper (Lev 14:4-6, 49-52). They are all probably ritual detergents. The Hebrew word ezob (“hyssop”) may refer to marjoram, sage, or thyme. The three materials thrown into the fire are all reddish in color.

7 Then the priest must wash his clothes and bathe himself in water, and afterward he may come into the camp, but the priest will be ceremonially unclean until evening. 8 The one who burns it must wash his clothes in water and bathe himself in water. He will be ceremonially unclean until evening.

The priest who throws the cedar, hyssop, and crimson yarn into the fire (v. 6) is unclean as are the persons who set the cow on fire (vv. 5, 8) and collect the ashes (v. 10). However, neither the slaughterer of the cow (v. 3) nor the priest who consecrated its blood (v. 4) is said to have become unclean. The difference is one of time: Only those who come into contact with the red cow after the consecration of its blood become unclean. This proves that the blood consecration transforms the red cow into a ḥattaʾt, a purification offering, since anyone handling the ḥattaʾt becomes unclean (Lev. 16:28).6

Milgrom explains that the ḥattaʾt “transmits impurity from the purified to the purifier; hence, it purifies the defiled and defiles the pure.”7

9 “‘Then a man who is ceremonially clean must gather up the ashes of the red heifer and put them in a ceremonially clean place outside the camp. They must be kept for the community of the Israelites for use in the water of purification — it is a purification for sin.

A third, ceremonially clean man (not necessarily a priest) must gather the ashes. The ashes represent death, the ultimate condition of mortal man (Gen 18:27; Job 30:19; 42:6; Ezek 28:18-19). The ritual is identified as a sin/purification offering (ḥattaʾt); it cleanses the unclean person.

The standard procedure with a sin offering was to sprinkle some of the animal’s blood over the altar or over part of the tabernacle to cleanse it from sin. Some parts of the animal were burnt on the main altar, but most of it was burnt outside the camp (Lev. 4:1–21).8

10 The one who gathers the ashes of the heifer must wash his clothes and be ceremonially unclean until evening. This will be a permanent ordinance both for the Israelites and the resident foreigner who lives among them.

The ordinance is perpetual because death is perpetual.

What is of greatest interest in this verse is the reference to resident aliens. The verse emphasizes that the foregoing, namely, the preparation of the water of lustration from the ashes of the burned cow, is to be a permanent statute not only for Israelites, but for the gēr, the alien resident within the Israelite settlement. . . . This term designates non-Israelites who came from foreign lands, or whose families had done so at an earlier time.

Two questions are raised by the inclusion of the alien in the requirement of purification: (1) Was the corpse of a non-Israelite also a source of impurity? (2) Would a non-Israelite be contaminated by contact with a corpse, in the same way as would an Israelite? The wording of v 11 would seem clearly to assume as much, for it speaks of corpses and bones “belonging to any human being (lekol nepeš ʾādām),” and v 14, below, also uses the term ʾādām generically. Although later Jewish law restricted the provisions of this chapter to Israelite dead, the original intent of the law was to deal with all death occurring within the bounds of the Israelite settlement.9

11 “‘Whoever touches the corpse of any person will be ceremonially unclean seven days.

Other passages have mentioned corpse contamination (Lev 21:1-4, 11; 22:4; Num 5:2; 6:6-12; 9:6-11). This passage gives Israel the ritual to deal with this kind of uncleanness. The ritual has some similarities with the ritual of absolution in the case of an unsolved murder (Deut 21:1-10).

12 He must purify himself with water on the third day and on the seventh day, and so will be clean. But if he does not purify himself on the third day and the seventh day, then he will not be clean.

The two purifications by water may indicate the seriousness of corpse contamination.

13 Anyone who touches the corpse of any dead person and does not purify himself defiles the tabernacle of the LORD. And that person must be cut off from Israel, because the water of purification was not sprinkled on him. He will be unclean; his uncleanness remains on him.

Note that the tabernacle can become defiled (also v 20) even if the impure person does not enter the area of the tabernacle.

14 “‘This is the law: When a man dies in a tent, anyone who comes into the tent and all who are in the tent will be ceremonially unclean seven days.

Everyone within a dwelling (“tent”) is rendered unclean by a corpse even if they don’t touch the corpse.

15 And every open container that has no covering fastened on it is unclean.

Archaeological evidence suggests that what may be meant is a lid attached to the vessel by cords passing through holes in the lid and through the handles of the vessel. Such a lid would keep the vessel tightly closed and preserve it from defilement.10

Cf. Lev 11:32-34.

16 And whoever touches the body of someone killed with a sword in the open fields, or the body of someone who died of natural causes, or a human bone, or a grave, will be unclean seven days.

The Hebrew literally refers to a corpse “on the field” and may simply refer to a corpse outdoors. Touching a corpse, or the parts of a corpse (“human bone”), renders one unclean.

17 “‘For a ceremonially unclean person you must take some of the ashes of the heifer burnt for purification from sin and pour fresh running water over them in a vessel.

While Num 5:2 and 31:19 say that one unclean through contact with the dead should go outside the camp, verses 17-18 imply that the red cow ashes are taken from outside the camp (v 9) to the impure person inside the camp. Furthermore, the fact that the corpse contaminated person can defile the sanctuary (vv 13, 20) also implies he is within the camp.

18 Then a ceremonially clean person must take hyssop, dip it in the water, and sprinkle it on the tent, on all its furnishings, and on the people who were there, or on the one who touched a bone, or one killed, or one who died, or a grave.

Apparently any ceremonially clean person can perform the ritual, not just a priest. Hyssop is useful for sprinkling (Lev 14:6, 49). The “tent” in this case is the tent where the person died, not the tent of meeting.

19 And the clean person must sprinkle the unclean on the third day and on the seventh day; and on the seventh day he must purify him, and then he must wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and he will be clean in the evening.

20 But the man who is unclean and does not purify himself, that person must be cut off from among the community, because he has polluted the sanctuary of the LORD; the water of purification was not sprinkled on him, so he is unclean.

21 “‘So this will be a perpetual ordinance for them: The one who sprinkles the water of purification must wash his clothes, and the one who touches the water of purification will be unclean until evening.

The person who sprinkles the unclean person becomes unclean himself until evening. This is because the purification offering absorbs the uncleanness of the one cleansed.

22 And whatever the unclean person touches will be unclean, and the person who touches it will be unclean until evening.'”

Corpse contamination is contagious.

Bibliography

Ashley, Timothy R. The Book of Numbers. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Cole, R. Dennis. Numbers. Kindle Edition. The New American Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah. First Edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperOne, 2001.

Levine, Baruch A. Numbers 1-20. The Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Mays, James L., ed. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary. Revised Edition. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.

Milgrom, Jacob. Numbers. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers. Kindle Edition. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Academic, 2015.


  1. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 8854-8864 
  2. Wenham 2015, Kindle Locations 2566-2569 
  3. Levine 2008, 461 
  4. Levine 2008, p. 461 
  5. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 8995-9005 
  6. Milgrom 1990, 440–441 
  7. Milgrom 1990, 439 
  8. Wenham 2015, Kindle Locations 2570-2572 
  9. Levine 2008, 464–465 
  10. Milgrom 1990, 161 
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