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(MT versing)
Ordinance of the Red Heifer Laws of Purification Rites for Purifying A Person Who is Defiled by a Corpse Ashes of the Red Cow The Ashes of the Red Heifer
19:1-10 19:1-10 19:1-10a 19:1-10 19:1-10
19:10b-13 Contact with a Corpse Cases of Uncleanness
19:11-13 19:11-13 19:11-13 19:11-13
19:14-19 19:14-19 19:14-20 19:14-16 19:14-15
The Ritual of Water for Purification
19:17-19 19:17-20
19:20-22 19:20-22 19:20-22
19:21-22 19:21-22

READING CYCLE THREE (see "Bible Interpretation Seminar")


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

  1. First paragraph
  2. Second paragraph
  3. Etc.


  1. It is hard for modern, western people to comprehend the worldview of the ANE. There was no division between secular and sacred, between the physical and the spiritual, but there was a sharp distinction between "clean and unclean," "holy and not holy." See NIDOTTE, vol. 4, pp. 477-485.

  2. This chapter is about ceremonial purity, not moral purity. It is meant to illustrate the "special holiness" of the camp of Israel because of YHWH's presence (cf. Num. 5:3; 19:13, 20; Lev. 26:11-12). For a good discussion on uncleanness see NIDOTTE, vol. 2, pp. 365-375.

  3. YHWH provided ways for humans to remove ceremonial defilement.
    1. ashes of the red heifer
    2. wash clothes
    3. wash body
    4. separate oneself for a set period

  4. These specific requirements about contact with or proximity to a dead person are not found in Leviticus. They are placed here probably because of the large number of dead people mentioned in Numbers 16-17.

  5. See Josephus' account in Antiq. 4.4.6. He says this was done immediately after the burial of Miriam in the wilderness after her fortieth year of life.

    The use of "tent" in Num. 19:14 implies the antiquity of the account.

  6. There is a rabbinical tradition that even Solomon, in all his wisdom, could not explain how the same procedure
    1. made the unclean clean
    2. made the clean unclean


1Then the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 2"This is the statute of the law which the Lord has commanded, saying, 'Speak to the sons of Israel that they bring you an unblemished red heifer in which is no defect and on which a yoke has never been placed. 3You shall give it to Eleazar the priest, and it shall be brought outside the camp and be slaughtered in his presence. 4Next Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle some of its blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times. 5Then the heifer shall be burned in his sight; its hide and its flesh and its blood, with its refuse, shall be burned. 6The priest shall take cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet material and cast it into the midst of the burning heifer. 7The priest shall then wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward come into the camp, but the priest shall be unclean until evening. 8The one who burns it shall also wash his clothes in water and bathe his body in water, and shall be unclean until evening. 9Now a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place, and the congregation of the sons of Israel shall keep it as water to remove impurity; it is purification from sin. 10The one who gathers the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening; and it shall be a perpetual statute to the sons of Israel and to the alien who sojourns among them.'"

19:2 "statute of the law" See SPECIAL TOPIC: TERMS FOR GOD'S REVELATION.

Notice the requirements.

  1. unblemished ‒ BDB 548
  2. red ‒ BDB 10 (i.e., reddish brown with no other colored spots)
  3. heifer ‒ BDB 831
  4. no defect ‒ BDB 1071
  5. never yoked

The age is unspecified but probably just reaching maturity, possibly 2 - 3 years old.

▣ "an unblemished" See SPECIAL TOPIC: WITHOUT BLEMISH.

19:3 "Eleazar the priest" Aaron's oldest son (cf. Num. 3:4) after the death of Nadab and Abihu (cf. Leviticus 10).

▣ "be brought outside the camp" Sacrifices were slain at the altar of sacrifice but this burnt offering was for a special purpose—cleansing ceremonial defilement.

▣ "before him" It seems that several priests or clean persons were involved in this ritual.

  1. Eleazar
  2. one who killed the animal, Num. 19:3
  3. one who burned the animal, Num. 19:8
  4. one who gathered the ashes and placed them in a clean place outside the camp, Num. 19:9-10

Numbers 2-4 could be the same person but the text implies two persons.

19:4-10 The ritual procedure:

  1. the main priest
  2. put his finger into container of its blood
  3. sprinkled some toward the front of the tent of meeting
  4. several times
  5. complete animal burned (Num. 19:5)
  6. cast into the fire (see notes at Lev. 14:4, 6, 49, 51, 52)
    1. cedar wood
    2. hyssop (NIDOTTE, vol. 1, pp. 334-335)
    3. scarlet material
  7. the priest shall wash his clothes and bathe, but still be unclean until evening (i.e., start of a new day), Num. 19:7
  8. the person who burns the heifer must do the same procedures (Num. 19:8)
  9. the person who gathers the ashes removed by a clean person and placed in a special place must do the same procedures (Num. 19:9-10)

19:5 The red heifer is unique in several ways.

  1. it is slaughtered, not sacrificed
  2. it is slaughtered outside the camp, not at the altar
  3. it is not slaughtered specifically by a priest but a clean person (cf. Num. 19:18)
  4. it is completely burned, in a different way from Leviticus 1
  5. the blood was used and disposed of in an entirely unique way
    1. small amount sprinkled
    2. remainder burned with carcass

19:6 "scarlet material" In Leviticus 14 the same ritual items of "cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet" are used.

They seem to be tied together in one piece to sprinkle, but here that is not spelled out.

The scarlet could be

  1. a dye (the rabbis)
  2. a cord (TEV)
  3. symbolic colored, unspecified ritual item

19:9 "deposit it outside the camp" This seems to disagree with Num. 19:3. Is the animal slaughtered outside of the camp or are its ashes taken outside the camp?

▣ "shall keep it as water to remove impurity" Ashes are mixed with water and kept in a clean place outside the camp where it can be easily accessed by ceremonially unclean Israelites (cf. Num. 8:7).

The term translated "impurity" (BDB 622, cf. Num. 19:13,20; 31:23) is used in several senses.

  1. improper sexual union (i.e,. incest), Lev. 20:21
  2. a woman's menstrual flow, Lev. 2:2,5; 15:19, 20, 24, 25, 26, 33; 18:19
  3. an allusion to idolatry, 2 Chr. 29:5; Ezra 9:11; Ezek. 7:19-20; Lam. 1:17; Zech. 13:1

19:10 There is only one standard in Israel for Israelite, sojourner, and alien (cf. Num. 15:15, 29).

11"'The one who touches the corpse of any person shall be unclean for seven days. 12That one shall purify himself from uncleanness with the water on the third day and on the seventh day, and then he will be clean; but if he does not purify himself on the third day and on the seventh day, he will not be clean. 13Anyone who touches a corpse, the body of a man who has died, and does not purify himself, defiles the tabernacle of the Lord; and that person shall be cut off from Israel. Because the water for impurity was not sprinkled on him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is still on him.'"

19:11-19 These paragraphs deal with what makes someone ceremonially unclean (for contact with a dead person see Lev. 21:11; Num. 9:6-7).

  1. touches a corpse, probably in connection to the process of burial
  2. comes in contact with the tent or any thing in tent of a dead person (Num. 19:22)
  3. finds a dead person in an open field
    1. dies naturally
    2. dies in battle (again, probably involved in the burial of such a person)

There is a common ritual procedure involved.

  1. the uncleanness lasts for seven days, Num. 19:11, 15, 16
  2. use the water of the red heifer's ashes on the third and seventh days, Num. 19:12, 19
  3. sprinkle the water of the red heifer on the tent and furnishings of the dead person, Num. 19:18-19, 21
  4. wash his clothes and himself/herself, Num. 19:19, 21

If an Israelite refuses to purify himself, he/she is to be removed from the community (i.e., "cut off"), Num. 19:13, 20

  1. by a divine act of death
  2. by stoning of the community
  3. by excommunication (i.e., driven outside the camp permanently)

See full note at Num. 12:15 and Lev. 7:21.

19:13 "defiles the tabernacle of the Lord" This is "the" ceremonial issue (cf. Num. 19:20). YHWH is holy. He dwells over the ark in the midst of the camp of Israel. Nothing unclean must approach or dwell within the "holy camp/community of Israel."

14"'This is the law when a man dies in a tent: everyone who comes into the tent and everyone who is in the tent shall be unclean for seven days. 15Every open vessel, which has no covering tied down on it, shall be unclean. 16Also, anyone who in the open field touches one who has been slain with a sword or who has died naturally, or a human bone or a grave, shall be unclean for seven days. 17Then for the unclean person they shall take some of the ashes of the burnt purification from sin and flowing water shall be added to them in a vessel. 18A clean person shall take hyssop and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it on the tent and on all the furnishings and on the persons who were there, and on the one who touched the bone or the one slain or the one dying naturally or the grave. 19Then the clean person shall sprinkle on the unclean on the third day and on the seventh day; and on the seventh day he shall purify him from uncleanness, and he shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and shall be clean by evening.'"

19:15 This is very specific. Only certain tent contents are unclean.

19:18 "a clean person" Throughout this chapter the only priest involved was Eleazar at the beginning of the ritual outside the camp. All other actions were apparently done by "clean" Israelites (see note at Num. 19:5).

Here, the unclean Israelite (i.e., some connection to a dead person) was administered a cleansing ritual by a layperson.

20"'But the man who is unclean and does not purify himself from uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly, because he has defiled the sanctuary of the Lord; the water for impurity has not been sprinkled on him, he is unclean. 21So it shall be a perpetual statute for them. And he who sprinkles the water for impurity shall wash his clothes, and he who touches the water for impurity shall be unclean until evening. 22Furthermore, anything that the unclean person touches shall be unclean; and the person who touches it shall be unclean until evening.'"


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought-provoking, not definitive.

  1. What is the purpose of the ashes of the red heifer?
  2. What is unique about this ritual?
  3. Did priests or laymen perform the tasks of this cleansing rite?
  4. What was the purpose of the three items thrown into the fire?
  5. Does one become unclean by touching a dead person or just being in proximity? What is the significance?
  6. Why is this chapter so confusing to the rabbis?

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