Light from the Sidra

Chukat ('Ordinance') 26th June 2015. 3rd Tammuz 5775

Torah: Numbers 19:1-22:1. Haftarah: Judges 11:1-33

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)


Seeing red

There used to be an advert for a brand of bleach that promised to kill ‘99% of household germs.’ To my young mind, the claim was puzzling. If you cleaned your loo with the product one percent of the germs you tried to kill would still be lurking around the bowl working their ghastly business. If you poured more bleach into the toilet there would still be 1% of the 1% left, and so ad infinitum. However much you cleaned, those pesky germs were still going to get you. I couldn’t get my young head round it.

Early this morning I hung out a machine full of washing I loaded last night, and refilled the machine with another load of dirty clothes. As I sat down with a cup of coffee to read Numbers 19, I was immediately struck by the fact that becoming unclean is a lot easier and quicker than becoming clean. Getting ill is quicker and simpler than getting well. Putting on weight is far easier and more pleasant than getting thin. And sinning is a far quicker and simpler process than obtaining forgiveness.

Numbers 19 is about God’s provision for moral and ceremonial cleansing and it begins with a new kind of offering; a heifer ‘without blemish’ to be sacrificed ‘outside of the camp.’ No doubt to underline the need for blood, almost everything about this new offering is associated with the colour red: red cedar wood; a crimson thread; a red cow. The red heifer was offered not for moral cleansing but for ceremonial purification. When the eighteenth century evangelist John Wesley said that ‘cleanliness is next to godliness,’ he might have had this chapter in mind. To approach HASHEM, the people had to be clean morally and ceremonially, and the cleansing agent for both forms of defilement was blood.

The Mishnah tells us that in the period of second temple, ‘they made a causeway from the Temple Mount to the Mount of Olives, an arched way built over an arched way, with an arch directly above each pier [of the arch below], for fear of any grave in the depths below. By it the priest that was to burn the [Red] Heifer, and the Heifer, and all that aided him went forth to the Mount of Olives.’

The bridge led from the temple gate on the east to a ‘clean place’ near the summit of the Mount of Olives, where the heifer of Numbers 19 was killed ‘outside the camp.’ The Kidron Valley viaduct was also the route along which the scapegoat was led on the Day of Atonement symbolically bearing the sins of Israel.

After the slaughter of the heifer outside the camp, Elazar the Kohen sprinkled the blood seven times in the direction of the tabernacle and, later, the temple. The heifer was then burned in its entirety, reflecting and symbolising the total dedication of the animal to the total cleansing of the unclean Israelite. The cedar wood, the scarlet yarn and the hyssop – all of them used in the purification ritual for the leper in Leviticus 14) were also burned in the fire. Those who took part in the ritual – the officiating priest, the one who slaughtered and burned the heifer, and the man who gathered the ashes of the heifer – remained unclean until the evening.

The ashes of the heifer were stored in a ceremonially clean place outside the camp for future purification purposes. The implication is that inside the camp the ashes would be contaminated by the impurities of the people and so, whenever cleansing was required there was the means of cleansing from an uncontaminated outside source. The ceremony was an ‘eternal decree.’ How then – without a temple, priest or sacrifice –can Jewish people or outsiders hope to be made ritually or morally fit to approach HASHEM?
A few years before the second temple fell to the Roman armies of Titus, a rabbi wrote to a community of Messianic Jews, possibly in Judea, who were being intimidated by the charge levelled at them that they had abandoned Moses. He reminded his readers, first of all, that the temple was about to fall, as foretold in Daniel 9:25.26 and, secondly, that the death of Jesus was an infinitely greater means of cleansing than the ashes of the red heifer.

For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been profaned, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of the Messiah, who offered himself without blemish to God through the eternal Spirit, cleanse your consciences from dead works to serve the living God?

While the blood of bulls and goats and the red heifer cleansed Israelites externally, impurity and uncleanness go further than skin-deep. What was needed was an offering that could cleanse the parts the ashes of the red heifer could never reach. ‘We have an altar,’ says the same writer, ‘from which those who serve in the place of God’s presence have no authority to eat. For the animals whose blood is brought by the Kohen Gadol into the holy place as an offering for sin — their bodies are burned outside the camp. Therefore, in order to sanctify the people through his own blood, Yeshua [Jesus] also suffered outside the gate.’

It is highly probable that when Jesus the Messiah was executed ‘outside the gate,’ it was at the very the place where the Red Heifer of Numbers 19 was slaughtered And, if so, he would have been taken to his place of execution along the Kidron Valley viaduct over which the scapegoat was led each year bearing the guilt of Israel. That being so, it’s little wonder that within a generation of the death of the Messiah, the temple, the priesthood and the offerings vanished forever. Just as when we arrive at the destination to which we have been travelling, the road signs disappear, when the ultimate sacrifice for Israel and the world had been offered there was no need for the signs any more, there was no need for signs that pointed to Messiah, When Jewish people pray for the rebuilding of the temple, the priesthood and the offerings, they are pleading for the return of the signs when the reality is right here, right now!

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