Last week I went back a bit and covered Moses after I had already started with Joshua. This week I’m going to pick up on one more sacrifice that I missed out when dealing with the sacrifices of the tabernacle.
This particular sacrifice is covered in Numbers 19. It dealt with what happened when someone came into contact with a dead body. This was an important issue in this particular time in Israel’s history because an awful lot of people were dying. In fact the whole nation, bar two people, died within a 40 year period. God had promised that none of them would enter the promised land due to their constant bickering and lack of faith.
This sacrifice was quite unique in a number of ways, firstly a heifer is a cow (all the other sacrifices were bulls, goats, sheep and birds). We will look at some of the other distinctive parts of this sacrifice as we consider how this sacrifice shadowed Jesus.
1. The heifer was to be without defect
This is the statute of the law that the Lord has commanded: Tell the people of Israel to bring you a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish, and on which a yoke has never come. (Numbers 19:2)
Jesus was of course without defect, being sinless.
but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. (1 Peter 1:19)
2. The sacrifice was unique in that the death of an animal continued to have an effect even much later.
The other sacrifices around this time were immediate but this one had an effect, sometimes much later because the ritual involved the heifer’s ashes.
We can see the similarities with the death of Jesus whose death brings cleansing for individuals even now, centuries later. This theme is picked up a lot by the writer to the Hebrews
He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. (Hebrews 7:27)
he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. (Hebrews 9:12)
The difference was that Red Heifer’s had to be regularly sacrificed whereas Jesus’s death was sufficient for all time.
3. The person who administered the sacrifice had to be ‘clean’
And a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place. (Numbers 19:9)
Then a clean person shall take hyssop and dip it in the water and sprinkle it on the tent and on all the furnishings and on the persons who were there and on whoever touched the bone, or the slain or the dead or the grave. (Numbers 19:18)
Jesus was of course ‘clean’ being without sin.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)
The priest performing the Old Testament sacrifice was ceremonially clean, but Jesus, because he was without sin, was the only person who could offer the perfect sacrifice, for all people for all time.
4. Everyone involved in the ‘decontamination’ process were themselves contaminated.
Then the priest shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. But the priest shall be unclean until evening. The one who burns the heifer shall wash his clothes in water and bathe his body in water and shall be unclean until evening. (Numbers 19:7-8)
And the one who gathers the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening. (Numbers 19:10)
Jesus willingly became contaminated with our sin
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:24)
An interesting side note to this is when Jesus encountered people who were ceremonially unclean, such as the woman with the issue of blood (Luke 8:43-48) and the 10 lepers (Luke 17:11-19). Rather than being contaminated by them and being made unclean, they instead became clean. Jesus absorbs our sin, but with his resurrection power deals with that sin completely.
5. The sacrifice is costly for those administering it.
They were unable to enter the temple and minister and worship in God’s presence. For a time they were excluded. In a similar way, but in a much greater way, Jesus was forsaken by His father who he had spent eternity with in complete harmony. We will never understand the horror of that moment when Jesus cried out..
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
6. The Heifer was sacrificed outside the camp.
This shadows Jesus, who was crucified at ‘the place of the skull’, outside the city of Jerusalem.
As we have seen with all these examples in the Old Testament. These are just shadows and point towards the greater fulfillment. The sacrificed red heifer cleansed a person bodily for a limited time. Jesus’ sacrifice cleanses body, soul and spirit. It even cleanses the conscience.
For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:13-14)