Numbers 19

The Word Made Fresh

1The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, 2“This is a law commanded by the LORD: tell the people to bring an unblemished red heifer that has never been yoked. 3Give it to Eleazar the priest, and he will have it taken outside the camp where it will be slaughtered in his sight. 4Then he will take some of its blood and sprinkle it with his finger seven times toward the front of the meeting tent. 5Then the heifer – skin, flesh (including its dung) and blood – must be burned in Eleazar’s sight. 6While the heifer is burning he will throw some cedarwood, hyssop and a crimson rag onto the fire. 7Then he must wash his clothes and bathe himself before he may reenter the camp, but he must not approach the sacred areas until evening. 8Also, the one who actually handles the burning of the heifer must wash his clothes and bathe himself, and he will be isolated until sundown. 9Then another person who is not contaminated will gather the heifer’s ashes and store them outside the camp in an acceptable place; and the ashes will be kept for the people to use for washing so that they will be ritually clean. In that way the heifer becomes an offering of purification. 10The one who gathers the ashes will be quarantined until sundown. 11Anyone who comes into contact with a dead person’s body will be quarantined for seven days, 12and then must cleanse themselves with the water of purification on the third and seventh day; otherwise, they will continue to be quarantined. 13Anyone who touches a dead person’s body and does not observe this ritual insults the LORD’s sanctuary and must be exiled from the people because they remain unwashed; they bring their exile on themselves.

14“When someone dies inside a tent, everyone in the tent when the death occurs, and anyone who enters the tent, shall be quarantined for seven days. 15Any uncovered container must not be used for seven days. 16Outdoors, anyone who touches another who has been killed in battle or died of natural causes, or comes into contact with a human bone or grave, must be quarantined seven days. 17For them, ashes must be taken from a sacrifice and water added to the container; 18then someone who has not been exposed must take a hyssop branch, dip it in the water and sprinkle it on the person’s tent, furnishings, other people who were there and on whoever touched the bone, the dead body or the grave. 19That person must sprinkle the contaminated individuals on the third and seventh day, and they will be restored. 20Any who were exposed and do not do this must be banned from the gathering; they have contaminated the LORD’s sanctuary because the water for cleansing has not been sprinkled on them.

21“This is a permanent rule. And everyone who sprinkles the cleansing water or touches it must wash their clothes and be quarantined until evening. 22Anything the contaminated person touches will be considered contaminated until sunset.”

Commentary

1-10: A lot of people have died in the last few chapters. Death is incompatible with God’s holiness and those who come into contact with death are temporarily suspended from being part of God’s holy people. So, a way is given for the common people to deal with the contamination of death. A red heifer is to be slaughtered and burned outside the camp (the text never actually says that this ritual is carried out, only that it is commanded). Its ashes are kept, and whenever needed some of its ashes are sprinkled on water and then sprinkled on any person who has handled a dead body. In that way they are symbolically cleansed from the contamination of death.

11-13: The idea is that whenever anyone has to handle a dead body they are ceremonially “unclean” for a week. On the third and seventh days they are to be sprinkled with the “water for cleansing” on which is sprinkled the ashes of the red heifer. Otherwise, they would continue in an “unclean” state which would make it impossible for them to participate in the worship of the congregation.

14-20: The ritual of cleansing is described again, and the repetition makes the chapter unique, for this chapter is the most complete treatment of the subject of dealing with death in the Torah. I assume that whenever the ashes were used up the procedure was repeated as needed.

21-22: The process of dealing with the contamination of death is given as a permanent statute, but curiously is not mentioned again anywhere in Scripture.

Takeaway

The rather odd (to us) rituals required surrounding the handling of dead bodies is intended to keep the dead from “contaminating” the worshiping community. Actually, it was also probably a pretty good way of arresting the spread of disease throughout the community.