Red Heifer

Concise Bible Dictionary:


From Manners and Customs of the Bible:

The sacrifice of the red heifer was a peculiar ceremony designed to purify from the ceremonial defilement resulting from contact with a corpse (Num. 19:11-1611He that toucheth the dead body of any man shall be unclean seven days. 12He shall purify himself with it on the third day, and on the seventh day he shall be clean: but if he purify not himself the third day, then the seventh day he shall not be clean. 13Whosoever toucheth the dead body of any man that is dead, and purifieth not himself, defileth the tabernacle of the Lord; and that soul shall be cut off from Israel: because the water of separation was not sprinkled upon him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is yet upon him. 14This is the law, when a man dieth in a tent: all that come into the tent, and all that is in the tent, shall be unclean seven days. 15And every open vessel, which hath no covering bound upon it, is unclean. 16And whosoever toucheth one that is slain with a sword in the open fields, or a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days. (Numbers 19:11‑16)). A heifer perfectly red, and which had never borne the yoke, was selected by the people, and brought to Eleazar the priest. She was then taken outside the camp and slaughtered. Eleazar sprinkled her blood seven times before the Tabernacle, after which the entire carcass was burnt, the priest throwing into the fire cedar, and hyssop, and scarlet. The ashes were then carefully collected and laid up in a suitable place for future use (Num. 19:1-101And the Lord spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying, 2This is the ordinance of the law which the Lord hath commanded, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke: 3And ye shall give her unto Eleazar the priest, that he may bring her forth without the camp, and one shall slay her before his face: 4And Eleazar the priest shall take of her blood with his finger, and sprinkle of her blood directly before the tabernacle of the congregation seven times: 5And one shall burn the heifer in his sight; her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, shall he burn: 6And the priest shall take cedar wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer. 7Then the priest shall wash his clothes, and he shall bathe his flesh in water, and afterward he shall come into the camp, and the priest shall be unclean until the even. 8And he that burneth her shall wash his clothes in water, and bathe his flesh in water, and shall be unclean until the even. 9And a man that is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and lay them up without the camp in a clean place, and it shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for a water of separation: it is a purification for sin. 10And he that gathereth the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even: and it shall be unto the children of Israel, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among them, for a statute for ever. (Numbers 19:1‑10)). When purification from the defilement of a corpse became necessary, the ashes were made into a lye by means of running water, and the water was sprinkled from a bunch of hyssop on the person, the tent, the bed, or the utensils which had been defiled (Num. 19:17-1917And for an unclean person they shall take of the ashes of the burnt heifer of purification for sin, and running water shall be put thereto in a vessel: 18And a clean person shall take hyssop, and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it upon the tent, and upon all the vessels, and upon the persons that were there, and upon him that touched a bone, or one slain, or one dead, or a grave: 19And the clean person shall sprinkle upon the unclean on the third day, and on the seventh day: and on the seventh day he shall purify himself, and wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and shall be clean at even. (Numbers 19:17‑19)).
This sacrifice differed from all others in several important particulars. The victim was not slaughtered in the court, nor was it burnt on the altar; it was killed and burnt outside the camp. Neither the high priest nor any ordinary priest officiated, but the presumptive successor of the high priest. The animal chosen was not a bullock, as in other sacrifices, but a heifer, and the precise color was specified. The ashes were carefully preserved.
Much has been written on these subjects, and various attempts have been made to give full explanations of all the minutiae of the ceremonies, but some things connected with them are not easily explained. The Jews are represented as saying, that Solomon himself; with all his wisdom, did not fully understand them.
The general design, doubtless, was to keep in remembrance the awful fact of sin, which brought death into the world, and the necessity of purification from its pollution. Paul makes reference to this in Hebrews 9:13-1413For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: 14How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:13‑14). As Kurtz remarks, “This idea of an antidote against the defilement of death was the regulating principle of the whole institution, determining not only the choice of the sacrificial animal, but what should be added to it, and all that should be done with it” (Sacrificial Worship of the Old Testament, p. 426).

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