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Numbers 19:1-10

Context
The Red Heifer Ritual

19:1 1 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron: 19:2 “This is the ordinance of the law which the Lord has commanded: ‘Instruct 2  the Israelites to bring 3  you a red 4  heifer 5  without blemish, which has no defect 6  and has never carried a yoke. 19:3 You must give it to Eleazar the priest so that he can take it outside the camp, and it must be slaughtered before him. 7  19:4 Eleazar the priest is to take 8  some of its blood with his finger, and sprinkle some of the blood seven times 9  directly in front of the tent of meeting. 19:5 Then the heifer must be burned 10  in his sight – its skin, its flesh, its blood, and its offal is to be burned. 11  19:6 And the priest must take cedar wood, hyssop, 12  and scarlet wool and throw them into the midst of the fire where the heifer is burning. 13  19:7 Then the priest must wash 14  his clothes and bathe himself 15  in water, and afterward he may come 16  into the camp, but the priest will be ceremonially unclean until evening. 19:8 The one who burns it 17  must wash his clothes in water and bathe himself in water. He will be ceremonially unclean until evening.

19:9 “‘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 18  for the community of the Israelites for use in the water of purification 19  – it is a purification for sin. 20  19:10 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.

1 sn In the last chapter the needs of the priests and Levites were addressed. Now the concern is for the people. This provision from the sacrifice of the red heifer is a precaution to ensure that the purity of the tabernacle was not violated by pollutions of impurity or death. This chapter has two main parts, both dealing with ceremonial purity: the ritual of the red heifer (vv. 1-10), and the purification from uncleanness (vv. 11-22). For further study see J. Milgrom, “The Paradox of the Red Cow (Num 19),” VT 31 (1981): 62-72.

2 tn Heb “speak to.”

3 tn The line literally reads, “speak to the Israelites that [and] they bring [will bring].” The imperfect [or jussive] is subordinated to the imperative either as a purpose clause, or as the object of the instruction – speak to them that they bring, or tell them to bring.

4 tn The color is designated as red, although the actual color would be a tanned red-brown color for the animal (see the usage in Isa 1:18 and Song 5:10). The reddish color suggested the blood of ritual purification; see J. Milgrom, “The Paradox of the Red Cow (Num 19),” VT 31 (1981): 62-72.

5 sn Some modern commentators prefer “cow” to “heifer,” thinking that the latter came from the influence of the Greek. Young animals were usually prescribed for the ritual, especially here, and so “heifer” is the better translation. A bull could not be given for this purification ritual because that is what was given for the high priests or the community according to Lev 4.

6 tn Heb “wherein there is no defect.”

7 tc The clause is a little ambiguous. It reads “and he shall slaughter it before him.” It sounds as if someone else will kill the heifer in the priest’s presence. Since no one is named as the subject, it may be translated as a passive. Some commentators simply interpret that Eleazar was to kill the animal personally, but that is a little forced for “before him.” The Greek text gives a third person plural sense to the verb; the Vulgate follows that reading.

8 tn The verb is the perfect tense with vav (ו) consecutive; it functions here as the equivalent of the imperfect of instruction.

9 sn Seven is a number with religious significance; it is often required in sacrificial ritual for atonement or for purification.

10 tn Again, the verb has no expressed subject, and so is given a passive translation.

11 tn The imperfect tense is third masculine singular, and so again the verb is to be made passive.

12 sn In addition to the general references, see R. K. Harrison, “The Biblical Problem of Hyssop,” EvQ 26 (1954): 218-24.

13 sn There is no clear explanation available as to why these items were to be burned with the heifer. N. H. Snaith suggests that in accordance with Babylonian sacrifices they would have enhanced the rites with an aroma (Leviticus and Numbers [NCB], 272). In Lev 14 the wood and the hyssop may have been bound together by the scarlet wool to make a sprinkling device. It may be that the symbolism is what is important here. Cedar wood, for example, is durable; it may have symbolized resistance to future corruption and defilement, an early acquired immunity perhaps (R. K. Harrison, Numbers [WEC], 256).

14 tn The sequence continues with the perfect tense and vav (ו) consecutive.

15 tn Heb “his flesh.”

16 tn This is the imperfect of permission.

17 sn Here the text makes clear that he had at least one assistant.

18 tn Heb “it will be.”

19 tn The expression לְמֵי נִדָּה (lÿme niddah) is “for waters of impurity.” The genitive must designate the purpose of the waters – they are for cases of impurity, and so serve for cleansing or purifying, thus “water of purification.” The word “impurity” can also mean “abhorrent” because it refers to so many kinds of impurities. It is also called a purification offering; Milgrom notes that this is fitting because the sacrificial ritual involved transfers impurity from the purified to the purifier (pp. 62-72).

20 sn The ashes were to be stored somewhere outside the camp to be used in a water portion for cleansing someone who was defiled. This is a ritual that was enacted in the wilderness; it is something of a restoring rite for people alienated from community.



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