Now the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “This is the ordinance of the law which the Lord has commanded, saying: ‘Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring you a red heifer without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which a yoke has never come.'” (Numbers 19:1-2)
As this chapter begins, it addresses what is perhaps the strangest rite in all of Scripture. The law of the Red Heifer is puzzling to say the least and is, in my view, the epitome of a paradox. The ashes of this heifer served to purify those who were contaminated while, at the same time, contaminating the priests who participated in its preparation.
In Hebrew this strange ordinance was part of a group of laws called chukat –- laws that are supposedly beyond human understanding. Yet, rabbinical sources are quick to point out that the inability to understand is due to the limitation of the student, not the Teacher. In other words, there is a legitimate and purposeful reason for this particular rite, even though its meaning isn’t always obvious to us.
With this notion in mind, the Midrash quotes the book of Job: “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? No one!” (Job 14:4). On the surface, the text states that no person is able to derive a clean thing from something that is unclean. However, the commentary makes this point: the Hebrew word אחד echad, or “one,” suggests that there is One who can do this — i.e. God. Only He can bring something pure from something that was impure. For example, it is believed that Terah was an idol maker and yet, from his household, emerged a great man of faith, Abraham. According to Jewish sources this is the point of the Red Heifer rite — bringing forth clean from the unclean.
Just as the ashes of the Red Heifer provided for the removal of defilement and made pure those who were “unclean,” God cleanses and purifies those who have hearts to serve Him. This truth, of course, is personified in the Messiah whose connection to the Red Heifer is emphasized by the writer of Hebrews: “For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Messiah … cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:13-14)
Understanding just how this works is a bit puzzling to our finite minds; in fact it is a bit of a paradox. However, there is no greater truth than this — the blood of the Messiah has the power to bring something clean from what was dirty and impure and, for that, I am eternally grateful.
Blessings and Shalom,