I love the fact that there are so many layers of meaning in scripture. There are shadows in the Old Testament that point to realities in the New and there are mysteries in the New that are only understood by looking at the Old. The book of Hebrews is particularly rich in mysteries that require some of the shadows of the Old Testament to bring revelation and allow the light of Christ to shine through.
In chapter 9 of Hebrews a reference is made to the ashes of a heifer being sprinkled upon the people.
“The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean.”
Hebrews 9:13 NIV
Have you ever thought about the heifer that the writer is talking about? The writer is referring to a rather complicated passage in Numbers 19:
“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: “This is a requirement of the law that the Lord has commanded: Tell the Israelites to bring you a red heifer without defect or blemish and that has never been under a yoke. Give it to Eleazar the priest; it is to be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence. Then Eleazar the priest is to take some of its blood on his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the tent of meeting. While he watches, the heifer is to be burned—its hide, flesh, blood and intestines. The priest is to take some cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet wool and throw them onto the burning heifer. After that, the priest must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water. He may then come into the camp, but he will be ceremonially unclean till evening. The man who burns it must also wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he too will be unclean till evening. “A man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and put them in a ceremonially clean place outside the camp. They are to be kept by the Israelite community for use in the water of cleansing; it is for purification from sin. The man who gathers up the ashes of the heifer must also wash his clothes, and he too will be unclean till evening. This will be a lasting ordinance both for the Israelites and for the foreigners residing among them.
“For the unclean person, put some ashes from the burned purification offering into a jar and pour fresh water over them. Then a man who is ceremonially clean is to take some hyssop, dip it in the water and sprinkle the tent and all the furnishings and the people who were there. He must also sprinkle anyone who has touched a human bone or a grave or anyone who has been killed or anyone who has died a natural death. The man who is clean is to sprinkle those who are unclean on the third and seventh days, and on the seventh day he is to purify them. Those who are being cleansed must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and that evening they will be clean.”
Numbers 19:1-10, 17-19 NIV
The writer of Hebrews is wanting to connect the passage in Hebrews with the passage in Numbers. There is a truth that he wants us to understand but to do so we must understand the Old Testament shadows (Heb 8:5) and the greater realities that they point to.
The red heifer was sacrificed for ritual purification of people and objects that have come into contact with the dead and to allow them back into the presence of God. The red heifer had to be without blemish or defect and it should never have been yoked. In numbers 19 Eleazar the priest is directed to take the heifer outside the camp to be slaughtered, then with some of the blood on the his finger to sprinkle it in the direction of the tent of meeting seven times. The heifer is then to be burnt. Whilst it is being burnt he is to add to the fire cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet wool. The ashes are then collected and stored in a ceremonially clean place outside the camp. The priest then had to bathe as the priest would now be be ‘unclean’.
When the ashes were needed they would be placed in a vessel with spring water and hyssop and sprinkled on those who were unclean (Numbers 19).
Coming into contact with the dead was defiling and needed to be atoned for, the red heifer did just that. It is an unusual sacrifice in that the one who is unclean is made clean and the one who makes the sacrifice becomes unclean. There isn’t another sacrifice like it. Already you can see the imagery pointing towards Jesus. Jesus is the one who became sin for us so that we could be righteous and come into God’s presence (2Cor 5:21).
As the heifer is burnt Cedar wood is added. Cedar is known for preserving things from decay and corruption. Hyssop is also added, this is known for cleansing (Ps 51:7). And the other element that is added is scarlet wool. The scarlet colour is extracted from the crushing of a worm found in certain trees in Israel. The red is symbolic of the blood of Christ but we can also find reference in psalm 22:6 “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by people.” This is a messianic psalm and speaks of the crushing and breaking of Christ on the cross.
It is thought that there were historically nine red heifers that were used for the cleansing and the purification. Jesus is the tenth, with the number ten being symbolic of completion and the fulfilment of Ezekiel 36:25–26 “Then I shall sprinkle pure waters upon you and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols will I cleanse you. I will also give you a new heart and I will place within you a new spirit.”
Christ became symbolic of the red heifer. Sacrificed outside of the camp, his death allowed for the cleansing of the people. And as the writer to the Hebrews tells us, Christ’s sacrifice is the perfect sacrifice. His sacrifice put an end to the need for any other sacrifice.