Stuck at Leviticus—More than Just Ceremony
In this article, we will examine one of the most popular chapters in all of Scripture—Numbers 19. Did I just say, “one of the most popular chapters”? I did, but with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek.
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Please be honest—there is no reason to feel ashamed—raise your hand if, at least once, you began an annual Bible-reading plan, became engrossed in the ups, downs, adventures, and sagas of Genesis and Exodus, then came to a screeching halt in Leviticus. In my imagination, I see scores of raised hands, including my own. This is technically Numbers, but chapter 19 is still very … Levitical—sacrifice, ceremony, ritual, blood, burning, clean, unclean.
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It is not the end of the world if a lot of us admit that we find reading these sections more tedious than we would find reading stories, letters, prophecies, and other biblical proses. With that said, since walking with God means trusting Him in all things, great and small, normal and strange, then let us trust that He had a plethora of compelling reasons for canonizing such an abundance of sacramental prescriptions and regulations. At a rudimentary minimum, John the Baptist’s declaration of Jesus as the “Lamb of God” is a confirmation of this.
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To go on a bit of a tangent, as I am prone to do, Daniel and Revelation are the books that are intuitively considered the keystones of our identity as Seventh-day Adventist Christians. I by no means have a problem with this. However, I recommend we stretch this profile a fair amount.
Hebrews, which may very well constitute a substantial corpus of my near-future writing, means just as much to our existence and mission, for with more explicit clarity than anywhere else, it propels us to direct the attention of those of alternative folds toward what Christ is doing, as well as what He did.
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Prophecy is Nothing Without the Sanctuary
Peeling back another layer, Leviticus, with outside chapters and passages that sound like it, is the catalyst for the other three books. Daniel, Hebrews, and Revelation are completely useless without the sanctuary and its services. The Lord Himself shapes our faith, of course, but it is His intricate, multi-faceted object lesson that shapes our theological infrastructure and, more practically, our effectiveness in preparing ourselves and the world for His soon return.
Getting back on track, we will not simply read Numbers 19, but study it, and through this endeavor, I believe will learn precious principles that will fortify our spiritual journeys. A handful of the themes we will explore here will directly or indirectly coincide with what we have already observed in some of the columns I wrote earlier this year.
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The Red Heifer
There are similarities and differences between the red heifer and other offerings. Their comparisons can certainly teach us relevant aspects of God’s redemptive plan. Nevertheless, we will place greater emphasis on the contrasts. It is from the uniqueness of the red heifer offering that we will garner a greater wealth of gospel gems. First, though, let us delineate a representative list of commonalities:
- It was to be without defect or blemish
- A priest was involved
- It was slain
- The priest administered blood
- It was burned
The first discrepancy between the red heifer and other sacrifices that we will unpack is frequency. Even offerings such as peace, drink, and grain, which would more or less fall under a voluntary category, were conducted on a regular basis.
Keeping in mind that the early Israelite nation, during the Mosaic era, amounted to roughly 2 million people (600,000 males, most of them with families), it is sensible to envision that, at practically any given moment, a handful of people would visit the altar and express their devotion to and adoration and appreciation for God through these tangible means.
This says nothing of the more systematic, backbone sacrifices. The burnt offering first instituted it in Eden, centuries before the Exodus, was the foundation of the sacrificial system. Understanding that in the sanctuary service, the burnt offering was performed twice every single day for national atonement efficacy plus those brought on an individual basis, one needs a scientific calculator to tabulate the occurrences of burnt offerings.
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Then, of course, there was the sin offering. God required that those who dwelt within the camp were to bring an animal sacrifice whenever they transgressed one of His commands. The kind of creature used depended on positional and economic association, and even this scale insinuated God’s justice and mercy.
The frequency discrepancy between the red heifer and the other offerings, is perhaps what intrigued me most. The aforementioned offerings likely tallied millions upon millions upon millions, but based on the sources I inspected, the grand total for red heifer offerings ranged from a half dozen to a dozen. To keep things simple, let’s say ten. The Holy Spirit helped me determine that there are two main reasons for this rarity:
- It could not be enacted very often
- It did not need to be enacted very often
A red cow was not like a pink unicorn or Bigfoot. A person could find one with some effort. For what it is worth, they were more rusty than rosy. Those of us who live in rural settings have probably driven past a few of them. However, not any red cow could be used.
Extra-biblical material suggests that one designated for sacrifice could not have one chromatically divergent follicle, and we saw in Numbers 19
- It could not have any blemish or defect
- It could not have done any common work—agricultural or otherwise.
A person’s prospect of going from impurity to purity was predicated on a creature with a very lofty pedigree, one up to which very few creatures could measure.
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Israel’s sacramental history spanned roughly a full millennium, and there is no indication that the ash supply was ever depleted. Using simple arithmetic, one cow generated enough ashes—enough cleansing benefit—to last about one hundred years. This was quite a relief, especially considering what we just discussed regarding how narrow the options were. The two acknowledgments numbered above go hand-in-hand.
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The Ashes of the Heifer to Span Generations
Time is an important factor as it pertains to the red heifer offering, on multiple fronts. We alluded to one already, and we will again in a few moments—the reality that one sacrifice could cover approximately a full century. On a different front, we read in verse 10 that the person who gathered the ashes must go through a cleansing process because of impurity. It was a similar case for the priest and person in charge of incineration, according to earlier verses.
Getting back to contrasts, the person who benefitted from the atonement of a burnt or sin offering is the one who brought the animal, laid hands on it, and slaughtered it. This is not the case with the red heifer.
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A person who could potentially be cleansed by the cow’s ashes did not bring it to the priest, lay hands on its head, or slaughter it. This person did not even witness its death or burning. Remembering that one cow supplied enough benefit for about one hundred years, based on the round, conservative numbers we used, this person may not have even been born when the sacrifice occurred. Nevertheless, this particular “time-warp” dynamic did not diminish its purifying effect with respect to any person who needed it.
Verses 9 and 17 state that the red heifer offering was for purification from sin. The surrounding context seems contradictory but fret not. When someone needed to be cleansed, it was not for breaking God’s law; it was for coming into contact with death.
This did not render moral accountability, as such. If Person A was with Person B in a dwelling, and B passed, how could A be blamed? Person A bore contamination—and needed to be purified—but not blamed. The same goes for one who, in familial responsibility, participated in the burial of a deceased loved one.
I have deduced that there are two primary threads that weave through this chapter:
- Sin and death are Siamese twins, so to speak
- Death is ubiquitous and inescapable … outside of divine intervention
In conjunction with the second point, something we can learn from Numbers 19 is that sin is a matter of condition, as well as behavior. God prescribed sacrifices for wrongdoing, and rightfully so. We must experience atonement for the iniquity we commit, but we must also experience atonement because mortality tarnishes our DNA. With at least a modicum of boldness, I would say that those who were washed with the cow’s ashes were born again.
Overall, what I found fascinating about the red heifer offering is that, in assorted ways, it superseded the burnt, sin, peace, and others. The latter was more limited, especially in regard to time. That is why they were repeated so frequently.
The red heifer’s potency was much more far-reaching, and thankfully so, for very few of them were available. Furthermore, to reiterate, it addressed the conditional dimension of sin, and I have mentioned in prior articles that it would behoove us to emphasize this and the behavioral dimension with equal treatment.
The Potency of Christ’s Sacrifice
We have stayed within ceremonial parameters for much of this study, but now it is time to step out of them. The red heifer’s higher-plane relation to the daily sacrifices was relative, and Hebrews 9:13–14 (NASB) verifies this:
For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
No sheep, goats, pigeons, bulls, or even cows could ever actually liberate humanity from the fetters of iniquity and destruction. They were merely shadows of the substance—Jesus and His death on the cross. He superseded the red heifers much more than they superseded the other offerings. The Lamb of God did not need to die twelve, ten, or even six times, but only once, yet the cleansing potency is more than sufficient for every person from every generation, spanning millennia before and after Calvary.
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We will conclude with an excerpt from the Spirit of Prophecy. The Lord is worthy of our praise for investing and risking all the resources of heaven to execute such an impeccable plan for our ransom from sin and death.
Beyond this provision itself, He taught us its nuances through various angles, not exhaustively—for we have to accept the elements of mystery that will take us infinite time to uncover—but enough to solicit from us an intelligent faith. We must exercise this faith, for Christ’s purifying sacrifice is the only remedy we have to make us fit for everlasting fellowship with Him and His people in “the midst of the assembly.”
The children of Israel were anciently commanded to make an offering for the entire congregation to purify them from ceremonial defilement. This sacrifice was a red heifer and represented the more perfect offering that should redeem from the pollution of sin. This was an occasional sacrifice for the purification of all those who had necessarily or accidentally touched the dead. All who came in contact with death in any way were considered ceremonially unclean. This was to forcibly impress the minds of the Hebrews with the fact that death came in consequence of sin and therefore is a representative of sin. The one heifer … impressively point[s] to the one great offering, the sacrifice of Christ.
This heifer was to be red, which was a symbol of blood. It must be without spot or blemish, and one that had never borne a yoke. Here, again, Christ was typified. The Son of God came voluntarily to accomplish the work of atonement. There was no obligatory yoke upon Him … Christ alone was free from the claims of the law to undertake the redemption of the sinful race. He had power to lay down His life and to take it up again …
The sacrificial heifer was conducted without the camp and slain in the most imposing manner. Thus Christ suffered without the gates of Jerusalem, for Calvary was outside the city walls. This was to show that Christ did not die for the Hebrews alone, but for all mankind. He proclaims to a fallen world that He has come to be their Redeemer and urges them to accept the salvation He offers them. The heifer having been slain in a most solemn manner, the priest, clothed in pure white garments, took the blood in his hands as it issued from the body of the victim and cast it toward the temple seven times …
The body of the heifer was burned to ashes, which signified a whole and ample sacrifice. The ashes were then gathered up by a person uncontaminated by contact with the dead and placed in a vessel containing water from a running stream. This clean and pure person then took a cedar stick with scarlet cloth and a bunch of hyssop, and sprinkled the contents of the vessel upon the tent and the people assembled. This ceremony was repeated several times in order to be thorough and was done as a purification from sin.
Thus Christ, in His own spotless righteousness, after shedding His precious blood, enters into the holy place to cleanse the sanctuary. And there the crimson current is brought into the service of reconciling God to man. Some may look upon this slaying of the heifer as a meaningless ceremony, but it was done by the command of God and bears a deep significance that has not lost its application to the present time.
The priest used cedar and hyssop, dipping them into the cleansing water and sprinkling the unclean. This symbolized the blood of Christ spilled to cleanse us from moral impurities. The repeated sprinklings illustrate the thoroughness of the work that must be accomplished for the repenting sinner. All that he has must be consecrated. Not only should his own soul be washed clean and pure, but he should strive to have his family, his domestic arrangements, his property, and his entire belongings consecrated to God …
The blood of Christ is efficacious, but it needs to be applied continually … you need the blood of sprinkling thoroughly applied, consecrating you and all your possessions to God.
 Numbers 19:2; see also Exodus 12:5; Leviticus 1:3; 3:1; 4:3; etc.
 Numbers 19:3; see also Leviticus 1:5; 3:2; 4:30; etc.
 Numbers 19:3; see also Leviticus 1:5; 3:2; 4:29; etc.
 Numbers 19:4; see also Leviticus 1:5; 3:2; 4:30; etc.
 Numbers 19:5; see also Leviticus 1:9; 3:5; 4:31; etc.
 White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4 (Battle Creek, MI: Review & Herald, 1881), p. 120–123.