The Red Heifer


If we had written the Bible, we would probably have put the sacrifice of the red heifer in the book of Leviticus, along with the detailed accounts of the other sacrifices there. That the Spirit of God has not done so, but has put it in the middle of the book of Numbers instead (chapter 19), is significant. The subject of Leviticus is how the Israelites were to approach God by sacrifice, but Numbers relates their behaviour in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land. Thus the red heifer is pre–eminently a wilderness type and prefigures the death of Christ as God’s provision for us as we pass through a sinful and defiling world to our eternal home. Thus if the Levitical offerings are primarily concerned with guilt and lay great stress on the blood, the red heifer deals with the issue of defilement, and so the blood, while mentioned, is less prominent. The focus of the red heifer is on cleansing by water. Both thoughts are brought out in the death of Christ: “but one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water” (John 19: 34).

The Need for Cleansing

The background to God’s provision of the red heifer is very simple—death. Numbers 19 is preceded by the rebellion of Korah and the associated plague in which nearly fifteen thousand of the children of Israel died (see Num. 16: 49). Nor was this an isolated incident, for, as Paul tells us when recounting the forty years Israel spent in the wilderness, “God was not pleased with the most of them, for they were strewed in the desert” (1 Cor. 10: 5). Dealing with death was thus a common occurrence and the potential for defilement from a corpse very real. God had already made provision for sin in the “blood of goats and bulls”; God’s provision for uncleanness was “a heifer’s ashes sprinkling the defiled” (Heb. 9: 13). Death of course, is “the wages of sin” (Rom. 6: 23), and its prevalence in Israel reminds us that, as believers, we can hardly take a step in this world without the risk of being defiled by the effects of sin.

A Red Heifer

“This is the statute of the law which Jehovah hath commanded, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, that they may bring thee a red heifer” (Num. 19: 2). Why a heifer—a female animal? Some of the Levitical offerings were exclusively male (see Lev. 1: 3 etc.), while others, such as the peace offering, could be either male or female (see Lev. 3: 1 etc.). While male sacrifices perhaps indicate energy in carrying out the divine counsel, female sacrifices are suggestive of subjection to the will of another (see Gen. 3: 16). In this way Christ stood in relation to God, hence: “not my will, but thine be done” (Luke 22: 42). There is a clear connection between this and the fact that the sacrifice of Numbers 19 was not a lamb, but a heifer—a beast of service. As the primary focus of the chapter is cleansing from defilement rather than guilt, it seems fitting that this state should be addressed by an offering that speaks so clearly of One who was ever “undefiled” (Heb. 7: 26)—it was not possible that He could be turned aside from the divine will after anything in this fallen world.

   What can we say as to the colour of the animal? The Hebrew words for man, earth and red are all very similar, and many scholars believe that the original complexion of man as made of the earth was ruddy or red. That being so, the heifer being red reminds us that “it behoved him in all things to be made like to [his] brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things relating to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people; for, in that himself has suffered, being tempted, he is able to help those that are being tempted” (Heb. 2: 17, 18).

A Perfect Sacrifice

The red heifer was to be “without blemish, wherein is no defect” (Num. 19: 2). This emphasises the perfection of the sacrifice: the Lord Jesus “did no sin” (1 Pet. 2: 22), “knew not sin” (2 Cor. 5: 21) and “in him sin is not” (1 John 3: 5). He was perfect within and without. So He “offered himself spotless to God” (Heb. 9: 14).

   Next, “and upon which never came yoke” (Num. 19: 2). Why the emphasis on the yoke here?—none of the sacrifices in Leviticus mention it. A yoke implies a controlling influence. Thus “every one that practises sin is the bondman of sin” (John 8: 34). Man has a nature that ever tends to lead him in the direction of defilement. Not so the Lord Jesus. He moved through this scene unaffected by its temptations, its charms, its flattery and its fear. Sin, the world and the Devil had absolutely no lever on Christ.

   Having established its perfection, the red heifer was to be given “to Eleazar the priest, and he shall bring it outside the camp, and one shall slaughter it before him” (Num. 19: 3). Now turn to Hebrews 13: “Wherefore also Jesus, that he might sanctify the people by his own blood, suffered without the gate” (v12). How clearly the antitype answers to the type! The heifer was brought forth without the camp to its death, just as the Lord Jesus was led forth without the gate to Calvary—a rejected Saviour.

The Sprinkling of the Heifer’s Blood

Eleazar the priest was to take the heifer’s blood with his finger, and “sprinkle of its blood directly before the tent of meeting seven times” (Num. 19: 4). Now in the Levitical offerings, the blood was to be sprinkled on the altar. Not so the red heifer—it was slaughtered and wholly burnt outside the camp. The priest did not ignore the altar, for he sprinkled the heifer’s blood towards it, but his action was not so much for God as for the people. It was a public act—which was impossible with the sprinkling on the altar. Now the number seven in Scripture is a symbol of perfection, while the tabernacle was, of course, the dwelling place of God. This then is a witness of how the precious blood of Christ has perfectly settled the matter of our guilt before a holy God. Once this fact has been established, there is no further allusion to the sprinkling of the blood for the remainder the chapter. That this should be so, is in keeping with the subject matter of the chapter—cleansing by water. And yet many today totally overlook the water and talk about applying the blood again and again as cleansing from defilement. Appeal is often made to 1 John 1: 7 “if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin”. But this does not teach that the blood needs to be applied again and again as we sin! The point here is not whether we always walk according to the light we have received (and who does not fail?), but whether we are in the light or in darkness. Believers are “sons of light and sons of day” (1 Thess. 5: 5). To walk in darkness is to be an unbeliever. The present tense of the word “cleanses” does not mean we need repeated application of the blood for cleansing as we sin. It simply refers to the intrinsic value of the blood—it cleanses from sin. The believer has been cleansed from the guilt of sin once for all when he believed, and walks without fear in the light with that knowledge in his heart.

   To say that the blood needs to be constantly re–applied is to cast doubt on its efficacy. When was the blood shed on the basis of which we got forgiveness? Nearly two millennia ago. When was the value of that blood applied to us? When we believed. For how long does its efficacy last? Scripture tells us: “For by one offering he has perfected in perpetuity the sanctified” (Heb. 10: 14, my emphasis). It is not till we sin again, it is without interruption forever. We have been “sanctified” (set apart by God for himself) “through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (v10, my emphasis).

   In the blood sprinkled then, we see the question of our sins settled forever. If I have trusted in Christ, God will not and cannot raise the question of my guilt again. This gives a wonderful peace to the soul for, despite what the Lord Jesus has effected for us, believers are still marked by failure (see James 3: 2). However, the details of the red heifer do not stop at blood–sprinkling:

The Burning of the Heifer

“And one shall burn the heifer before his eyes” (the priest’s) “its skin and its flesh, and its blood, with its dung, shall he burn” (v5). This is not simply the blood shed—here the whole animal, blood and all, is entirely consumed. It is burnt to ashes. What does that signify to us? In Rom. 8: 3 we read, “God, having sent his own Son, in likeness of flesh of sin, and for sin, has condemned sin in the flesh”. Thus sin in the flesh—our state by nature as children of Adam, not only our sins—was condemned by God when Christ was “made sin for us” (2 Cor. 5: 21). Everything about that nature is judged in the sight of God, and thus the sacrifice must be wholly burned—not because Christ had any taint of our fallen nature, but because He took our place in judgment and death.

   Now if God has judged our fallen nature, then we must not expect anything from it—and yet we often do! Multitudes of believers cry out in despair “O wretched man that I [am]! who shall deliver me out of this body of death?” (Rom. 7: 24). It is not unusual, for example, to be troubled by foolish and evil thoughts. Indeed, many an exercised soul has thought to himself ‘If I was really a child of God, I would not have these evil notions at all’. Ah, beloved friend, that is no proof that you are not a Christian! You would not be concerned about such things if you were unconverted. You need to see that not only your sins, but also what you are by nature was answered for at Calvary! There God condemned sin in the flesh, not just the sins, but the nature that produced them. Perhaps you have been finding out for years the evil of your nature, and you say, ‘The older I grow, the worse I get’. And then you are very liable to think that God is also finding out by degrees how bad you are. But it is not so. He ever knew how bad you and I are by nature, and how poorly we should turn out even after we were saved. Knowing all that (and knowing ourselves better than we do), He gave His own beloved Son—not only to meet the question of our sins, but also to address the far deeper question of what we are by nature. Sin and sins—all was settled when the Saviour was made “an offering for sin” (Is. 53: 10). How important a lesson to learn as we pass through this evil world—a world whose defilements seem calculated to appeal to our fallen nature!

The Cedar–wood, Hyssop and Scarlet

One more aspect of the burning of the heifer needs to be considered:  “And the priest shall take cedar–wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast them into the midst of the burning of the heifer” (Num. 19: 6). In 1 Kings 4: 33, Solomon “spoke of the trees, from the cedar–tree that is on Lebanon even to the hyssop that springs out of the wall”—that is, from the greatest thing among plants to the smallest. The cedar–wood and hyssop here typify all that we glory and boast in as natural men, whether great or small. Thus there are little things we are proud of, and lofty things we set great store by, but all must be cast into the fire. The scarlet reinforces this imagery, for scarlet is a type of the glory of this world—the woman in Revelation 17 for example, was clothed in scarlet and sitting on a scarlet beast (see vs. 3, 4). All these things must be consumed in the burning of the heifer. This sets out a truth too little known—a truth embodied in those memorable words of the apostle of the Gentiles “far be it from me to boast save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom [the] world is crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6: 14). This is something beyond the question of our sins being settled. The cross is not only the basis of our deliverance from guilt and condemnation, but it also severs us forever from “all that [is] in the world” (1 John 2: 16). How can the believer have anything in common with the world that crucified his Saviour? The cross has dislodged him from everything here below and made him a stranger and pilgrim. The devoted heart sees the dark shadow of the cross looming over all this world’s glitter. Paul counted all that he once proudly cloaked himself with as “filth” (Phil. 3: 8)—defilement to be ashamed of. Such was the apostle, and such should every Christian be—a stranger on earth, a citizen of heaven, and this not merely in sentiment and theory, but in fact and reality. The Lord Jesus not only “gave himself for our sins” but did so in order that “he should deliver us out of the present evil world” (Gal. 1: 4)—and “world” here means, not the planet, but the present course of things. This being so, when we look at the cross of Christ what becomes of our wretched pride and all that the world esteems glorious, and seeks after? Surely it becomes as nothing, and we must cast it aside, just as the cedar–wood, hyssop, and scarlet were consumed in the midst of the burning of the heifer!

The Water of Separation

We have seen that the death of Christ has once for all settled the question of ours sins, and removed our guilt. We have also seen that God has judged not only sins but sin—what we are by nature. And we have seen that the world and its defilements, is crucified to us. All this is judicial and is set forth in the sacrifice of the red heifer. However, the details of the sacrifice do not end there. God has made provision, not only for judicial cleansing but for moral cleansing as well, not only salvation, but restoration to communion with Himself for the believer who has sinned (see 1 John 1: 9). This provision is the “water of separation”—a “purification for sin” (Num. 19: 9), and is the main purpose of the sacrifice of the red heifer.

   In Numbers 19: 11–22 we learn how an Israelite got defiled—by touching anything connected with death. If the man only touched a bone he was unclean. But not only was the man who touched the bone defiled, but “whatever the unclean person toucheth shall be unclean” (v22). If this seems harsh, we need to remember it is a question of what God calls unclean, and not what we think. A bone, a grave, or the body of one slain with a sword in the open field (see v16)—if he came in contact with any of these the man became unclean. Now dead bodies, dead men’s bones, and graves all have their existence through sin, for, as we have been reminded already, death is the wages of sin (see Rom. 6: 23).

   Verses 16 to 19 are a picture of what is done when a child of God commits a sin, or gets defiled by coming in contact with evil in his pathway through this world. When an Israelite contracted defilement, was blood sprinkled on him? No. What was sprinkled on him? Not blood, but “water of separation” (v21)—made from the ashes of the red heifer: “And they shall take for the unclean of the ashes of the purification–offering that hath been burned, and shall put running water thereon in a vessel” (v17). The ashes suggest the calling to mind of Christ’s sufferings and death— they were the memorial of the blood shed, and the body that had been burned. What is meant by the running (or living) water? This is a symbol of the Word of God applied to our hearts by the Holy Spirit (see John 7: 38; Eph. 5: 26). The Holy Spirit, when we have been defiled by evil, takes the sufferings and death of Christ, and brings to our remembrance what He suffered in order to deliver us from the very sins we have committed. The consequence is that we grieve over what we have done, and we go and confess it to the Lord.

   Now the Holy Spirit often uses the agency of our brethren to provide cleansing by the Word. Thus the water of purification was applied to the unclean man by a “clean man” (v18). Does this not remind us of Galatians 6: 1 “Brethren, if even a man be taken in some fault, ye who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of meekness, considering thyself lest thou also be tempted”? The “spirit of meekness” takes us back to the fact that hyssop was used to sprinkle the water of purification (see Num. 19: 18), for hyssop is an emblem of what is lowly. The mention of the hyssop also reminds us of David’s repentance in Psalm 51: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” (v7). Was he a sinner seeking salvation? No, he was a saint seeking restoration. Even the best can fail. Hence in Galatians 6, Paul adds the warning “considering thyself lest thou also be tempted” (v1). We are surrounded by sin and its effects, and we little know how frequently we get defiled. Even the man that sprinkled the water became unclean himself (see Num. 19: 21) and had to wash. Thus if we are occupied with evil we are liable to get defiled by it, because we have a nature in us that answers to evil.

   In verse 15 we read that “every open vessel, which hath no covering bound upon it, shall be unclean”. A man who had had to do with a dead body was very liable to contaminate any food in the camp—hence the need for a covering. Every Israelite therefore had an interest in the cleansing of the defiled, and all could administer the cleansing, provided they were themselves clean. Similarly, every Christian has a duty to his fellow–saint, hence the words of the Lord Jesus to his disciples: “ye also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13: 14). All of us pick up defilement as we journey through this world, and all of us need the application of the Word by the Holy Spirit to our lives. It is a service we can and must perform for each other—not in a self–righteous fashion, but with hyssop—that spirit of lowliness that marked the One who washed His own disciple’s feet (see v5).


I have been able to give only the leading thoughts in this beautiful chapter, but I trust you have gained some acquaintance with the truths which it teaches. May we know more of the unceasing love of Him who gave Himself for us, who cleanses the Church by the washing of water by the Word (see Eph. 5: 26), and who will present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing. May the Lord keep us near to Himself till that day.