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Numbers 19, extraordinary symbolism

Discussion in '2003 Archive' started by Barry and Helen Setterfield, Mar 25, 2003.

  1. Barry and Helen Setterfield

    Dec 28, 2002
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    A somewhat extensive study on Numbers 19 has turned up some fascinating bits of information. The chapter itself instructs on how to prepare water for ceremonial cleansing: a red heifer, without blemish or defect and never under a yoke is to be slaughtered outside the camp, its blood sprinkled toward the Tabernacle, and then fully burned to ashes. Cedar, hyssop, and wool are to be thrown into the fire, so their ashes will mix with the heifer’s ashes. The ashes are to be kept in a ceremonially clean place outside the camp and they will be mixed with water to make the water cleansing water. Please read the rest of the chapter about contact with a dead body and the actual ceremonial washing before you read the notes below.


    A heifer is a cow which has never been pregnant. A red heifer is not a common occurrence. Thus, her very color would make her valuable. Some commentators also mention that the red color may have symbolized blood – for it is because Christ’s blood was shed for us that we are forgiven our sins.

    Unlike the normal sacrifices, the red heifer is to be slaughtered outside the camp. Christ, also, was crucified outside the city. The blood is to be taken only by the ‘fingerful’ for seven times and sprinkled by Eleazar the priest toward the Tent of Meeting (the Tabernacle). This blood will not enter the Tabernacle.

    Unlike the other sacrifices, the blood also was to be burned. This may carry over as a picture of a couple of things in the New Testament. First of all, Paul tells us that flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. They are part of this creation and, as such, corrupted by sin. So what will happen to them? In 2 Peter 3:10-11, we learn that the elements will be destroyed by fire.

    The cleansing required the sacrifice, but was apart from it, also. These are interesting thoughts. Not doctrine – but pictures God has given us in a number of ways to help explain things like the necessity of the utter destruction of what we know to make way for what is to come.

    The following is from a commentary on the web:

    We’ve talked about the red heifer and the symbolism. Now we’ll look at the New Testament. We’ll move to I John 5:6. This is He who came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ. Not by water only, but by water and blood" The red heifer was burned complete. The priest would drip his finger in the blood and sprinkle it towards the tabernacle, but it burned with its blood, complete. Then the ash was mixed with water, so it was with water and blood. Here we have Jesus being said that He came by water and blood. Then in Hebrews 9:19-20 we’re told that Moses took the blood of calves, and goats, mixed it with water, scarlet wood and hyssop. Again, in this passage we’re talking about a sin offering. Jesus is our offering for sin, once for all. It seems we should be looking at the sin offerings to have an understanding of what Jesus did for us. Does that make since that it all ties together, that it is a common thread? For it to be valid, understood in its context, we go through the whole thing.

    The addition of cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet were important for their symbolism:

    1. In Leviticus 14:4-6, each of these items is used in the ceremonial cleansing ceremony for someone healed of an infectious skin disease.

    2. Cedar is aromatic, repellant to insects, and resistant itself to rot. Of all woods, it might be considered a ‘clean’ wood for this reason.

    3. Hyssop has medicinal properties (see section below). In Psalm 51:7, we have the interesting verse, Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.. Jesus, on the cross, was also given wine vinegar in a sponge with was lifted to Him on the stalk of a hyssop plant (John 19:29).

    4. Blue, purple and scarlet yarn was woven into the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Tabernacle (Exodus 26:31). Scarlet yarn was used in the sacred garments of the High Priest (Exodus 28:5-6). It was the color of the cloth covering the showbread and the utensils when the Tabernacle was to be moved during the wilderness journey. It was the color of the robe put on Christ when He was being mocked after His arrest (Matthew 27:28). The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that both scarlet wool and hyssop were involved in the establishing of the covenant between God and the Israelite people (Hebrews 9:19). This association of scarlet with the covenant between God and His people makes the fact that the ‘great prostitute’ of Revelation is a woman sitting on a scarlet beast “that was covered with blasphemous names”, and that the woman was dressed herself in purple and scarlet (Rev. 17:3-4). In fact the description of what the woman is wearing and the city of Revelation 18 which is destroyed are almost exact (Rev. 18:16). Thus, it should be noted that scarlet is highly symbolic, possibly not only of blood, but of the covenant of blood between God and the Israelites.

    All who deal with the slaughtering and burning of the materials as well as the gathering of the ashes must be ceremonially clean and also be cleansed afterwards. There is no specification as to the rank of the man gathering the ashes. Only a priest can make the sacrifice, but any man who is clean could gather the ashes and place them in a ceremonially clean place outside the camp. This differentiation is important symbolically, for as Peter tells us in 1 Peter 2, Christ is making his disciples into a nation of priests – thus any man who was ceremonially clean could handle the ashes AFTER the sacrifice.

    These ashes would be mixed with water to provide the water for the ceremonial cleansing of anyone who has come into any contact at all with a dead body. It is important to note that it was not a sin to be ceremonially unclean. It was, however, a sin not to be cleansed afterwards. Ceremonial uncleanness meant a person could not interact with or worship amongst the congregation of Israelites, however.

    In John 13 we see that if a person is clean, the feet from the day’s walking must still be washed regularly. This is the same thing with slightly different symbolism. Touching or being near a dead body is the same symbolism as feet dirty from walking a day’s journey: both are part of creation as it is now, degenerate because of sin. And we sin in our walk everyday. In order to be spiritually part of the Christian community, then, we must be periodically cleansed, or have our feet washed, by Christ Himself. As John says in his first epistle, If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

    This picture is presented many ways in the Bible. The water of cleansing, made with the ashes of a sacrificed animal, was one of the pictures.

    The following is from a commentary on the web which explains this rather well:

    “He must purify himself with the water on the third day and on the seventh day; then he will be clean.” Numbers 19:12

    This passage refers to a specific ritual of the priests set forth to keep themselves ceremonially clean. When they came into contact with something that was designated unclean, they were forced to wash themselves in order to rid themselves of that uncleanness. For example, if a priest came into contact with a dead body, they were designated as unclean for seven days, and had to wash themselves with water on the third and seventh day to restore their status.
    When we are in Christ, our sins are atoned for, nevertheless we are still required to confess them. Metaphorically, like the priest who touched a dead body, our sins make us unclean until that time when we bring them to the Lord. The penalty for choosing to remain unclean for a priest was separation from the community. Numbers 19:13 says, “Because the water of cleansing has not been sprinkled on him, he is unclean; his uncleanness remains on him.” And so when we choose not to confess our sins to the Lord, our sins remain on us, sort of like dirt remains on a child that refuses to wash their hands. It is something that can easily be remedied, but that child does need to go to the tap, turn it on, and use a little soap.
    James 5:16 says, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
    I think there are two things I could take out of this today. Firstly, that confession is important and something we need to do regularly. Secondly, that before we pray, perhaps confession should be one of the first things we think about. For if "a prayer of a righteous man avails much," the emphasis is placed on a right standing with God for the prayer to be very effective. Therefore not only is confession important for our fellowship with God, but also in the effectiveness of our prayers. Our right standing with God will make our prayers pleasant offerings unto him.


    Suppose a person refused to be ceremonially cleansed? He was to be cut off from his people permanently. Is this a picture of losing salvation? No, it is not. It is a picture of a person refusing the salvation offered to him by God.

    Continuing on in Numbers 19, we can also see some interesting medical facts that were only ‘discovered’ within the last couple of hundred years.

    1. As soon as a body is dead, its defenses against bacteria stop. Thus, shortly after the time of death, decay begins. The explosion of bacteria and toxins associated with a dead body can be very dangerous to those nearby if the body is not disposed of quickly. Thus, those who had been in contact with the dead body were to be quarantined until it could be seen that they did not become sick or infected.

    2. Every open container was to be either broken and scrapped or, if metal, thoroughly cleansed before being used again. Again, while this may have seemed silly to them then, and certainly to many in the millennia that followed, the insistence upon sanitation was God’s protective health measure for them at the very least.

    The water of cleansing, made with the ashes of the heifer, was what was used after the period of quarantine to proclaim the person officially and ceremonially clean of the contamination of death. And so Christ does with us. And only Christ can do it. Look at Paul’s words in Romans 7:24-25:
    What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!

    And then look at what the writer to the Hebrews explains to them in 9:13-14:
    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?

    One commentator made a very interesting point regarding uncleanliness and cleanliness:
    Uncleanness is easily transmitted (Whatever the unclean person touches shall be unclean), but cleanness must be deliberately sought.


    Regarding hyssop, a little research revealed some very interesting information: it is an antibacterial agent!

    The following was gleaned from four different websites:

    God commanded the priest to mix hyssop into the ashes to form an ointment. It turns out that hyssop oil is a very effective antiseptic and antibacterial agent. It contains 50% carvacrol which is an antifungal and antibacterial agent still used in medicine today. This solution was to be used to purify skin and items such as leather and clothing. Material which could withstand fire--such as metal pots--was to be purified through fire. God revealed an astonishing knowledge of bacterial warfare which we have only begun to understand this century!


    A semi-evergreen shrub with aromatic leaves and spikes of blue flowers. Once used for purifying temples and cleansing lepers, the leaves contain an antiseptic antiviral oil. An infusion is taken as a sedative expectorant for flu, bronchitis, and phlegm. The oil is used in perfumes and to treat cold sores, disperse bruises, and heal scars. Hyssop is added to potpourri and laundry rinses.

    The herb is used (often in combination with sage which has similar properties) for respiratory tract infections. Flu, sore throats, lung complaints, asthma, chronic bronchitis, gas, and bloating are treated by hyssop. Externally, it is used as a wound herb for bruises, injuries, and rheumatism. The green tops of the herb can be added to soups to benefit asthmatics.



    HYSSOP (Hyssopus officinalis), the "Biblical antiseptic," is a bushy, evergreen plant introduced into the warmer parts of the United States from southern Europe. Once widely cultivated for medicinal uses, it is now grown mostly as an ornamental shrub. If you want bees in your garden, then plant this pretty and hardy perennial. Hyssop also has the reputation for enhancing the flavor of grapes and increasing the yield of cabbages planted nearby.
    The Book of Psalms (51:9) says, "Purge me with Hyssop, and I shall be clean." But the Biblical cleanser does more than clean. It may work as an antiseptic for infections and for fighting various other health conditions. Jewish priests used strong-smelling Hyssop 2500 years ago to clean the Temple in Jerusalem and other places or worship. The Greeks adopted it, and the physician Dioscorides prescribed the herb in tea, plasters, and chest rubs. In 17th century Europe, Hyssop was a popular air freshener or "strewing herb." Colonists introduced Hyssop into North America and continued using it to treat chest congestions.

    Contemporary herbalists recommend Hyssop compresses and poultices for bruises, burns, and wounds, and an infusion for treating coughs, colds, bronchitis, flatulence, indigestion, menstruation promotion, and even epileptic seizures. Hyssop has indeed been used as an effective, natural expectorant, digestive aid, sedative, and muscle relaxant. As an antiseptic, Hyssop inhibits the growth of the herpes simplex virus, which causes genital herpes and cold sores.

    The volatile oils found in the leaves and flowers help loosen mucus and stimulate coughing, and decrease gas. Hyssop oil contains several soothing camphor-like constituents and one expectorant chemical (marrubiin), which loosens phlegm so it can be coughed-up more easily. Scientific sources agree that it is a "reasonably effective" treatment for coughs and respiratory irritation of colds and influenza.

    Hyssop possesses the following properties: astringent, carminative, emmenagogue, expectorant, stimulant, stomachic, and tonic. Hyssop is used in essentially the same way as sage, with which it is sometimes combined to make a gargle for sore throat. The herb is available in the following forms: dried or fresh leaves, tea, tincture, essential oil, and capsules. It can be used in combination with white horehound and coltsfoot for coughs and bronchitis and with boneset, elder flower, and peppermint for cold symptoms. Although Hyssop is included in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's list of herbs generally regarded as safe, it should only be used by non-pregnant, non-nursing, and otherwise healthy adults. It may cause minor stomach discomfort or diarrhea.



    Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)
    (a picture at this website from New Zealand may be offensive to some)
    Historically, lepers were required cleanse themselves with hyssop before they were allowed to receive visits from healthier relatives. Even then, it was known that hyssop was an excellent cleansing herb. More recently, it has been discovered that hyssop leaves can sometimes grow the type of mould which produces penicillin, making it an effective antibiotic.

    Healing uses:
    Hyssop is used in the treatment of lung inflammation, sore throats and laryngitis. It can be particularly beneficial to individuals who are required to use their voice, such as lecturers, public speakers or singers, as it also soothes tired vocal cords. For this purpose, it should be taken as a tea. Add 2 tablespoons of hyssop leaves to 500ml of boiling water, and allow to stand for 30 minutes. Reheat, if necessary, so that the liquid is very warm.

    This tea can also be used to alleviate bruising. Apply the liquid with a cotton ball until the swelling and discolouration have subsided.
    For a black eye, place a small bunch of hyssop into a muslin bag and soak the bag in boiling water for a minute. When it has cooled to a temperature which is just bearable to the touch, apply to the eye. Reheat the bag as it cools, and continue to apply until the bruising diminishes.

    Hyssop boiled with vinegar makes a rinse which relieves the pain of toothache. Gently simmer 2 teaspoons of hyssop leaves in 1/2 cup of vinegar for about 5 minutes. Strain and swill about the mouth, then spit out the mixture.
  2. Sherrie

    Sherrie New Member

    Jul 28, 2002
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    I hope I am allowed to comment on this. If not I apologize, as it is kind of confusing what we do after we read.

    This hyssop is (Numbers 19: 17-19) speaking of the faith these people have, because cleansing with it and the ashes, is God's way of dealing with the sin of these people. Now, Jesus blood cleanses us today of our sins, and that is now our faith.

    This hyssop is what allowed those walking in the wilderness to be clean, and fellowship with the Lord in their walk. It was like a deoderizer for their relationship with God.

    You really did work hard on this reading. Very good point made. Thanks. Hope it was ok to respond. My deepest apologies if not.


    Edited to fix some spelling mistakes.

    [ March 26, 2003, 03:57 PM: Message edited by: Sherrie ]
  3. Helen

    Helen <img src =/Helen2.gif>

    Aug 29, 2001
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    Responses are TOTALLY appreciated, Sherrie! It lets us know someone is reading! God bless you.

    and, oh yeah, thanks for the comments. I like the way you mention that it is all speaking of the faith of the people. I remember in Psalms when David says, 'cleanse me with hyssop and I shall be clean' he is obviously not talking about being brushed down with a branch with leaves on it!

    Still, the type of branch that is used as that symbol is good -- it is medicinal. You've got me thinking again about all this. That's good. I might learn something!

    Christ is, after all, also known to us as the Great Physician, right? [​IMG]