Romans 6:23 tells us that “the wages of sin is death.” And, Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden led to exactly that. There was the physical death of the body, of course, but also the greater death of the soul. People are now dead in their trespasses and sins. It is only belief in the Lord Jesus Christ that can make us alive in Him. Jesus is life, and death has no part with a Living God. In fact, during Old Testament times, any exposure at all to a corpse would cause a person to be considered “unclean” and unable to participate in worship. It was only through a cleansing ritual that a person could be purified to dare approach God once again. It involved a sprinkling of living (or moving) water mixed with the ashes of a red heifer. To the Jewish people, the ritual’s specifications are still a mystery. To Christians, we can see how the red heifer is a symbol of the Lord Jesus Christ redeeming His bride. The sprinkling is the on-going work of sanctification and cleansing from a world defiled by death.
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 Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?Hebrews 9:13-14
Numbers 19 is the chapter in which God gave Moses instructions for the red heifer ritual. There were many details that set this sacrifice apart from all others done by God’s people during Old Testament times. First of all, this was the only female sacrifice, and it was the only one that specified the animal’s color: red. The animal had to be without spot or blemish like other sacrifices to God. But, unlike those other sacrifices, this one was not to be done inside the temple. Instead, the red heifer was killed outside the camp. The entire body was burned over cedar wood, even with the blood and dung, along with hyssop and a scarlet-colored cord.
When the ashes cooled, they were scooped into a container to be held for future use. Even just a tiny bit of the ashes mixed with a pure moving water source (like a stream or a river) would be enough to cleanse thousands of people. This water purification ritual was used for anyone who came into contact with death. A person who touched a dead body, was in a tent when someone died, or even passed through a burial area was required to be sprinkled on the third and seventh day. If the person was never sprinkled, he/she would remain unclean and would, by necessity, be cut off from God’s people. Nobody wanted to run the risk of an unclean person defiling the temple. That could cause the Spirit of God to refuse to return.
The Color and Gender
Red in Hebrew is “adom” and is related to the word for ground or earth, which is “ada’mah.” The words “red,” “Adam,” and “ground” all come from the same root word. In Lamentations 4:7, the word is translated “ruddy.” This ties the red heifer to humanity whom God created from the earth. Through Adam and Eve, people were defiled by sin so that their physical bodies died and returned to dust from which they came (Genesis 3:19).
A heifer is a female cow that has never borne a calf. It’s the one and only female animal sacrifice in all Judaism. Some have speculated that this serves to set this sacrifice apart as special. Some others believe that it ties into the idea that those who have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ are considered the Bride of Christ.
Like all other animal sacrifices, the red heifer could have no physical deformity. Also, no yoke could have been across her neck, and no work could have been done by her. As the Jews were wont to do, though, Rabbis later added more specifications to the sacrifice through their traditions. They now look at the quality of the color of the red. (It must be a deep red down to the hoofs).
They also look at the type of birth. (It must be a natural birth and not by cesarean section). And the age of the cow. (It has to be three or four years old according to the Mishna.) They even check the number of hairs allowed to be another color. (The cow may not even have two black or white hairs). Also, the cow must have been born in Israel. Incidentally, the Jews believe that only nine perfect red heifers have ever been sacrificed by the Jewish people. The tenth sacrifice will happen directly preceding the building of the third temple. Read more about that from a Jewish perspective here: The Temple Institute.
The Location And Slaughter
Unlike all other sacrifices, the red heifer was taken outside the camp. The animal would be examined to make sure there were no blemishes. Then, someone slaughtered the cow while the high priest looked on. The priest would then take the blood of the red heifer and sprinkle it seven times directly in front of the tabernacle of meeting. Seven is God’s perfect number and denotes finality. Both the person doing the slaughtering and the high priest were both clean before the ritual started but would be unclean after. No bone was broken or organs removed. Then the entire cow, blood, dung, and all would be burned to ashes, totally consumed, while the high priest watched.
Because of the location, passers-by might witness the ritual. It was a “call” of sorts to all who were unclean. Unlike other sacrifices, the red heifer was paid for by the entire congregation. Because of this, it in a sense belonged to everyone. Even Gentiles who didn’t belong to the nation of Israel could be cleansed. Isaiah 45:22 says, “Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.”
The Heifer is a Symbol of Jesus’ Sacrifice
Jesus died on the cross outside the camp. He was first examined and found to have no charge worthy of death. Then, his blood was spilled seven times:
- Back was pierced by scourging (Mark 15:15)
- Brow was pierced by a crown of thorns (Matthew 27:29)
- Left hand was pierced (John 20:27)
- Right hand was pierced (John 20:27)
- Left foot was pierced (Luke 24:39-40)
- Right foot was pierced (Luke 24-39-40)
- Side was pierced (John 19:34)
Jesus also did not have a single bone broken. He laid His life down willingly and became sin for us on the cross. He was consumed by death for a moment, but He was victorious in His resurrection. One day, He will return to consume the wicked until they are but ashes (Malachi 4:1,3). Both the Romans who carried out the sacrifice and the high priest, Caiaphas, who looked on believed themselves to be clean before Jesus died. After His death, they were both defiled. They would remain unclean unless they were to have believed in that death and resurrection to cleanse them. Just like the open sacrifice outside the gate would draw people in, in John 12:32, Jesus says (about His crucifixion) “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”
The Carcass Was Burned With Cedar, Hyssop, and a Scarlet Cord
Cedar wood was used to build the first temple. It was strong and hearty and symbolized stability or even eternity. Orthodox Christianity holds the tradition that the cross on which Jesus was crucified was made of three types of wood: cedar, pine, and cypress. This comes from Isaiah 60:13 which mentions the three trees and “the place of His feet.”
Hyssop is a symbol of faith. The Israelites used a hyssop branch to apply the blood of the lamb to the lintel and door posts in Exodus 12:22. (Faith in God caused Jews to obey this command and saved them when the Angel of Death passed by their houses without entering). Hyssop was also used in consecration and purification rituals. King David even mentioned it in relation to his own cleansing in Psalm 51:7 when he said, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” Finally, in John 19:29-30, Jesus received sour wine from a sponge placed on a hyssop branch. Indeed, He drank the wine of God’s wrath to the dregs.
The scarlet cord is, of course, a symbol of the blood shed for us on Calvary. There are so many interesting mentions of scarlet threads and cords that it would be a fascinating study on its own. There were scarlet threads on the priests’ garments, the scarlet cord used by Rahab the harlot to help the Jewish spies escape Jericho, and the scarlet thread tied to Judah’s son Zerah’s arm while Tamar was giving birth. It was supposed to help them remember which twin was born first, but Perez pushed through and was born before Zerah. It was through Perez’ line that Jesus would come.
The Water Purification Ritual
When the ashes of the red heifer were cooled, they were collected and kept for future use. One red heifer sacrifice could be enough for an entire nation plus any Gentiles who might request it. That ash was then mixed with living (moving) water. Living water, of course, alludes to the Holy Spirit (John 7:38-39). It was Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross that allowed the Holy Spirit to be given. It is the His Spirit who sanctifies us along with the washing of the water of the Word of God. This gradually changes us to be more like Him.
When someone became unclean by having any interaction with the dead, he/she would need to be sprinkled with this mixture on the third and seventh day. If the person disregarded these instructions and did not go through the ritual, that person would remain unclean forever.
Step 1: Sprinkled on The Third Day
In order for someone to be clean, he/she must first be sprinkled on the third day after contact with death. This, of course, relates to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead on the third day. Jesus is the propitiation for our sins. When we believe on Him as our Savior, He takes our penalty (death). He also cleanses us from all sins, and becomes our righteousness. If a person refuses to believe and submit, he/she will remain “unclean” and unable to approach a holy, living God.
Fascinatingly enough, Leviticus 23 lists the seven feast days for God’s people. The third feast is Passover. That was when the blood on the door posts caused the Angel of Death to pass over the Jews who believed and obeyed. This is, of course, the symbol of the blood of the Lamb, Jesus, being shed so that death will pass us by, and we will receive eternal life.
Step 2: Sprinkled on the Seventh Day
The seventh feast day mentioned in Leviticus 23 is the 8th day of Sukkot. Also called the Feast of In-Gathering and The Feast of the Final Harvest, it was a time of dwelling joyfully with God. On that day, someone read the Torah from the Bema Seat. This is a picture of our Bema judgement that will occur after the earth’s seventh day, the Millennial reign of Christ. That will mark our new beginning with Jesus in eternity, a time to tarry with God and serve Him.
What Does This Mean For You And Me?
“Jesus said to him, ‘He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.’”John 13:10
One Bible commentary says, “Death is like sin made visible.” In our world, sin (spiritual death) is all around us. Just by walking through our world, we pick up the dirt of defilement. Even if we aren’t actively participating in sin, we see it on the news, we read it in the headlines, and we feel it in the way people act and speak around us. This can have a great stunting effect on our spiritual awareness. We can feel heavy in worship or when attempting to praise God simply by having been near the perversity of the world.
Also, because purification is a process, we can’t get frustrated with ourselves if we aren’t perfect like Jesus immediately after we are saved. The third day brought our salvation and remission of sins, but the process doesn’t stop there. It continues even through that seventh day, that time of quietness and waiting on Him. That also means that we can’t resist the Holy Spirit when He tells us that there are things about us that He would like to change. It’s all a part of sanctification, being dedicated for God’s use as He sees fit.
Even as Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, we must come to God for spiritual cleansing on a regular basis. Just like one red heifer was enough for an entire congregation, Jesus’ one time sacrifice is enough to cleanse us forever and restore that clear awareness of God. It is what sprinkles our conscience from dead works to serve our living God until such time when we are made perfect in eternity.
Check Out These Other Articles and Resources
If you to look closely at scripture, try Three Simple Instructions From God to Us. In it, we look at Hebrews 3-4. Or, try Twinkly Trash: A Closer Look at Job 28. Please do not forget to sign up to receive email notifications at the top right of this page. Or, check out my YouTube channel where I read my blogs to you so you can multitask. I also have a super playlist of hymns led by the talented, anointed 16-year old at my church called Hymns from Hannah.