The Mystery And The Paradox

by George F Spall

This was the title of an intriguing article in the JERUSALEM POST WEEKLY written by Rabbi Peli Blechner, Professor of Jewish Thought and Literature in the Ben Gurion University, Beersheba. He wrote: "Mystery and paradox mark the rules and regulations concerning the Red Heifer (Numbers chapter 19). They prescribe a process of purification for anyone who has been in contact with a dead body. This could be accomplished only after the defiled person was sprinkled with water mixed with the ashes of the burned red heifer meticulously prepared by the High Priest who became defiled himself while engaged in this very work of purification. As the Rabbis of old put it: the Red Heifer serves at the one time 'to purify the unclean and defile the clean'."

May we add: the defilement was considered to last only until the even (Numbers 19:7). There was a limit to the period of defilement.

Rabbi Blechner goes on to tell us that it is believed that from the time of the institution of the original requirement until the destruction of the Temple there have been TEN red heifers. The practice was that the ashes were stored in a specially sanctified place and a little mixed with the water of purification as required. When the ashes of the first one were almost used up, they were then placed in a container and tied to the body of the next red heifer so that when the second animal was consumed by fire it would be impossible to distinguish or separate the ashes of the animals. This being carried on from cow to cow and from generation to generation, there would then be, at least in symbolism, only the one red heifer.

It must be realized that only cedar wood could be used for the fire that burnt the sacrifice; the animal was female; all other sacrifices were male. Hyssop, too, was used to sprinkle the water which had been dyed scarlet. So it was no ordinary sacrifice. In every way it was different. Neither was it made on any altar, but in a place "outside the camp." It must have had some significance for Moses and his contemporaries, and should have the same for us today surely.

I think we are bound to conclude that the water must have been more than just tinged with red. The whole emphasis is put on the colour, for even cedar wood is a red colour. Everything about this sacrifice it seems suggests blood.

There was only one purpose for this blood-like water. It was to purify where death had already occurred. Death defiles, and every Israelite who was in the desert with Moses was doomed to die before reaching the Promised Land except two men, Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh. Everyone else was doomed to die and their death would defile their tent which would then need to be 'cleansed' by the scarlet water.

Yes! There surely is a paradox. How can death cleanse the defilement of death?

Tradition, so often used to embalm an ancient truth, says that not until the ashes of the red heifer that were current in the days of the Second Temple are found will it be possible to cleanse the area where the next Temple is to be built! No wonder the hunt for the ancient pot of ashes proceeds!

Rabbi Blechner had some interesting observations to make. We can sum them up by saying that no one can solve the riddle those ashes present. It is enough that we obey the law (of the red heifer) simply because it is the law of God. In truth, we can accept the conclusion without being denied the right to further research the riddle. Let us try to do just that while still accepting the good Rabbi's ruling that it is enough that the Eternal has laid down the law.

However, an ancient Rabbi has left us an allusion to the ashes of the red heifer in a brilliant treatise which is intended to provide an adequate commentary on other ritual practices under the Old Covenant, such as Yom Kippur. The treatise is included in the Letter to the Hebrews (9:13) in the New Testament: "For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies to the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of the Messiah, who through the eternal spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?"

The suggestion deserves consideration.

Again we call tradition to remind us that "if two white hairs are found in the candidate red heifer it is disqualified as a sacrifice." Now, the heifer being 'red', even one white hair would be instantly apparent. One of the points made by all the New Testament writers is that Y'shua was found to be blameless according to the Law -- no sign of even one white hair!

We can understand Yohanan Ben Zavdai (John son of Zebedee) in the late first century claiming that the Eternal did not want to see blood sacrifices, and quote Psalm 40:6 and Psalm 51:16 to prove it: "Sacrifice and offering you did not desire . . . burnt offering and sin offering have you not required"; "For you desire not sacrifice; else would I give it: you delight not in burnt offering." But it must be borne in mind that John was bewildered by the tragedy of the destruction of the Second Temple, the loss of the consecrated altar, the decimated priesthood. It was a relief to a troubled mind to find these Scriptures.

But it was the LORD who required the shedding of those mega-litres of blood from countless lambs and bulls to begin with. The intent would seem to be to express horror at the enormity of the sins which called for death as an expiation. The original sentence passed against Adam and Eve: "You shall surely die" was carried out, as the whole generation that left Egypt surely died before entering the Promised Land.

Rabbi Blechner is quite right to remind us that laws have to be accepted in humility and submission if only because it is the king's will. But when the Messiah was here He spent time explaining the ancient Scriptures to His disciples and Himself declared that He had come to fulfil the Law.

I find it very helpful and satisfying to read the Letter to the Hebrews. The Jewish author wrote it when the Temple and the altar sacrifices were still in operation. They were not destroyed till some four or five years later. In his exposition the writer points out that the red heifer would suffer "outside the camp" and that the sprinkled ashes cleansed the defiled, though the officiating priest was defiled in the observance -- but only till the even.

The Gospel accounts of the crucifixion emphasize that the execution took place outside the city walls of Jerusalem; that it was complete by sun down -- the defilement concluded at even. The victim's cry "It is finished!" draws attention to that. His resurrection three days later demonstrates the spiritual effectiveness of the ritual.

There are conclusions that can be drawn by any Jew or Gentile whose heart-hunger for truth will cause him to cry out "Lord show me!" The paradox and the mystery will be resolved.