Light from the Sidra


Numbers 19:1-22:1.Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24

According to Jewish sources no flawless red heifer has been born in Israel since the fall of Jerusalem in A. D. 70. But in America in the early 1990s, Clyde Lott began to breed red heifers for export to Israel to help bring about the construction of a third temple.

The new “statute of the Torah” introduced in Numbers 19 is introduced immediately after the death of thousands who had died as a result of the rebellion of Korach and the plague that followed. Many of the people must have come in contact with dead bodies and, as a consequence, had become defiled.  

What could be done to cleanse the people of their ritual impurity? As we have seen throughout Leviticus, only blood can purge away uncleanness, whether moral or ritual. A red heifer without defect and which had never been under a yoke had to be slaughtered and its blood sprinkled seven times (signifying completeness) in front of the tabernacle. We should never underestimate the need for purity with regard to fellowship with God.

This presents a problem within Judaism. For 2,000 years the Jewish people have been without a temple, sacrifices and a priesthood. Therefore, Jews remain without the means of purification. The fact that many are desperate to rebuild the temple and have been so grateful to Clyde Lott for his breeding programme of is evidence that, despite claims to the contrary, observant Jews still recognise the need for sacrificial offerings.  

Biblical scholar and archaeologist Ernest Martin argues that the Red Heifer provides a clue to the site of the crucifixion of Jesus. In the Second Temple period, says Martin, there was a bridge that spanned the Kidron Valley from the Temple Mount to the Mount of Olives. On Yom Kippur, the scapegoat was led across the viaduct to the Mount of Olives on its way to the wilderness. It was at the eastern end of the bridge that the Red Heifer was burned (“outside the camp”)and from where its ashes were brought back to the temple for the purpose of purification.

Martin’s theory is that Jesus was crucified on the Mount of Olives because, according to the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus suffered “outside the camp” (Jerusalem) in order to purify his people. In other words Jesus became, as it were, all the Red Heifer typified and was therefore killed in more or less the same place the heifer was reduced to ashes. Because Jesus was also the scapegoat who carried the guilt of sin “as far as the east is from the west”, it would have been most appropriate for him to have been taken across the very bridge across which the scapegoat was led.

Whether or not Ernest Martin is correct (and I think his ideas deserve to be taken seriously), we all stand in need of purity. Thankfully, there is a sacrifice that can  reach the places the sacrifices in Leviticus and Numbers could never reach; a “Red Heifer”, as it were, that can purge our not consciences from guilt.  

At first sight it looks as though the Haftarah is teaching that God does not require sacrifice; in which case, why do pious Jews pray for a Third Temple in which sacrifices will be once again offered? Of course, who could disagree that humility, contriteness of heart and obedience to God are far more important than sacrificial offerings. However, until the time envisaged by Isaiah – when we are all pure in heart, soul and mind – we will be in need of a means of purification.

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