Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
In order that a consciousness of the continuance of the covenant relation might be kept alive during the dying out of the race that had fallen under the judgment of God, after the severe stroke with which the Lord had visited the whole nation in consequence of the rebellion of the company of Korah, He gave the law concerning purification from the uncleanness of death, in which first of all the preparation of a sprinkling water is commanded for the removal of this uncleanness (Num 19:1-10); and then, secondly, the use of this purifying water enjoined as an eternal statute (Num 19:10-22). The thought that death, and the putrefaction of death, as being the embodiment of sin, defiled and excluded from fellowship with the holy God, was a view of the fall and its consequences which had been handed down from the primeval age, and which was not only shared by the Israelites with many of the nations of antiquity,
(Note: Vid., Bhr, Symbolik, ii. pp. 466ff.; Sommer, bibl. Abhdll. pp. 271ff.; Knobel on this chapter, and Leyrer in Herzog's Cyclopaedia.)
but presupposed by the laws given on Sinai as a truth well known in Israel; and at the same time confirmed, both in the prohibition of the priests from defiling themselves with the dead, except in the case of their nearest blood-relations (Lev 21:1-6, Lev 21:10-12), and in the command, that every one who was defiled by a corpse should be removed out of the camp (Num 5:2-4). Now, so long as the mortality within the congregation did not exceed the natural limits, the traditional modes of purification would be quite sufficient. But when it prevailed to a hitherto unheard-of extent, in consequence of the sentence pronounced by God, the defilements would necessarily be so crowded together, that the whole congregation would be in danger of being infected with the defilement of death, and of forfeiting its vocation to be the holy nation of Jehovah, unless God provided it with the means of cleansing itself from this uncleanness, without losing the fellowship of His covenant of grace. The law which follows furnished the means. In Num 19:2 this law is called התּורה חקּת, a "statute of instruction," or law-statute. This combination of the two words commonly used for law and statute, which is only met with again in Num 31:21, and there, as here, in connection with a rule relating to purification from the uncleanness of death, is probably intended to give emphasis to the design of the law about to be given, to point it out as one of great importance, but not as decretum absque ulla ratione, a decree without any reason, as the Rabbins suppose.
Preparation of the Purifying Water. - As water is the ordinary means by which all kinds of uncleanness are removed, it was also to be employed in the removal of the uncleanness of death. But as this uncleanness was the strongest of all religious defilements, fresh water alone was not sufficient to remove it; and consequently a certain kind of sprinkling-water was appointed, which was strengthened by the ashes of a sin-offering, and thus formed into a holy alkali. The main point in the law which follows, therefore, was the preparation of the ashes, and these had to be obtained by the sacrifice of a red heifer.
(Note: On this sacrifice, which is so rich in symbolical allusions, but the details of which are so difficult to explain, compare the rabbinical statutes in the talmudical tractate Para (Mishnah, v. Surenh. vi. pp. 269ff.); Maimonides de vacca rufa; and Lundius jd. Heiligth. pp. 680ff. Among modern treatises on this subject, are Bhr's Symbolik, ii. pp. 493ff.; Hengstenberg, Egypt and the Books of Moses, pp. 173ff.; Leyrer in Herzog's Cycl.; Kurtz in the Theol. Studien und Kritiken, 1846, pp. 629ff. (also Sacrificial Worship of the Old Testament, pp. 422ff., Eng. transl., Tr.); and my Archologie, i. p. 58.)
The sons of Israel were to bring to Moses a red heifer, entirely without blemish, and to give it to Eleazar the priest, that he might have it slaughtered in his presence outside the camp. פּרה is not a cow generally, but a young cow, a heifer, הב́לבכיע (lxx), juvenca, between the calf and the full-grown cow. אדמּה, of a red colour, is not to be connected with תמימה in the sense of "quite red," as the Rabbins interpret it; but תמימה, integra, is to be taken by itself, and the words which follow, "wherein is no blemish," to be regarded as defining it still more precisely (see Lev 22:19-20). The slaying of this heifer is called חטּאת, a sin-offering, in Num 19:9 and Num 19:17. To remind the congregation that death was the wages of sin, the antidote to the defilement of death was to be taken from a sin-offering. But as the object was not to remove and wipe away sin as such, but simply to cleanse the congregation from the uncleanness which proceeded from death, the curse of sin, it was necessary that the sin-offering should be modified in a peculiar manner to accord with this special design. The sacrificial animal was not to be a bullock, as in the case of the ordinary sin-offerings of the congregation (Lev 4:14), but a female, because the female sex is the bearer of life (Gen 3:20), a פּרה, i.e., lit., the fruit-bringing; and of a red colour, not because the blood-red colour points to sin (as Hengstenberg follows the Rabbins and earlier theologians in supposing), but as the colour of the most "intensive life," which has its seat in the blood, and shows itself in the red colour of the face (the cheeks and lips); and one "upon which no yoke had ever come," i.e., whose vital energy had not yet been crippled by labour under the yoke. Lastly, like all the sacrificial animals, it was to be uninjured, and free from faults, inasmuch as the idea of representation, which lay at the foundation of all the sacrifices, but more especially of the sin-offerings, demanded natural sinlessness and original purity, quite as much as imputed sin and transferred uncleanness. Whilst the last-mentioned prerequisite showed that the victim was well fitted for bearing sin, the other attributes indicated the fulness of life and power in their highest forms, and qualified it to form a powerful antidote to death. As thus appointed to furnish a reagent against death and mortal corruption, the sacrificial animal was to possess throughout, viz., in colour, in sex, and in the character of its body, the fulness of life in its greatest freshness and vigour.
The sacrifice itself was to be superintended by Eleazar the priest, the eldest son of the high priest, and his presumptive successor in office; because Aaron, or the high priest, whose duty it was to present the sin-offerings for the congregation (Lev 4:16), could not, according to his official position, which required him to avoid all uncleanness of death (Lev 21:11-12), perform such an act as this, which stood in the closest relation to death and the uncleanness of death, and for that very reason had to be performed outside the camp. The subject, to "bring her forth" and "slay her," is indefinite; since it was not the duty of the priest to slay the sacrificial animal, but of the offerer himself, or in the case before us, of the congregation, which would appoint one of its own number for the purpose. All that the priest had to do was to sprinkle the blood; at the same time the slaying was to take place לפניו, before him, i.e., before his eyes. Eleazar was to sprinkle some of the blood seven times "towards the opposite," i.e., toward the front of the tabernacle (seven times, as in Lev 4:17). Through this sprinkling of the blood the slaying became a sacrifice, being brought thereby into relation to Jehovah and the sanctuary; whilst the life, which was sacrificed for the sin of the congregation, was given up to the Lord, and offered up in the only way in which a sacrifice, prepared like this, outside the sanctuary, could possibly be offered.
After this (Num 19:5, Num 19:6), they were to burn the cow, with the skin, flesh, blood, and dung, before his (Eleazar's) eyes, and he was to throw cedar-wood, hyssop, and scarlet wool into the fire. The burning of the sacrificial animal outside the camp took place in the case of every sin-offering for the whole congregation, for the reasons expounded on Lev 4:11-12. But in the case before us, the whole of the sacrificial act had to be performed outside the camp, i.e., outside the sphere of the theocracy; because the design of this sin-offering was not that the congregation might thereby be received through the expiation of its sin into the fellowship of the God and Lord who was present at the altar and in the sanctuary, but simply that an antidote to the infection of death might be provided for the congregation, which had become infected through fellowship with death; and consequently, the victim was to represent, not the living congregation as still associated with the God who was present in His earthly kingdom, but those members of the congregation who had fallen victims to temporal death as the wages of sin, and, as such, were separated from the earthly theocracy (see my Archaeology, i. p. 283). In this sacrifice, the blood, which was generally poured out at the foot of the altar, was burned along with the rest, and the ashes to be obtained were impregnated with the substance thereof. But in order still further to increase the strength of these ashes, which were already well fitted to serve as a powerful antidote to the corruption of death, as being the incorruptible residuum of the sin-offering which had not been destroyed by the fire, cedar-wood was thrown into the fire, as the symbol of the incorruptible continuance of life; and hyssop, as the symbol of purification from the corruption of death; and scarlet wool, the deep red of which shadowed forth the strongest vital energy (see at Lev 14:6), - so that the ashes might be regarded "as the quintessence of all that purified and strengthened life, refined and sublimated by the fire" (Leyrer).
The persons who took part in this - viz., the priest, the man who attended to the burning, and the clean man who gathered the ashes together, and deposited them in a clean place for subsequent use - became unclean till the evening in consequence; not from the fact that they had officiated for unclean persons, and, in a certain sense, had participated in their uncleanness (Knobel), but through the uncleanness of sin and death, which had passed over to the sin-offering; just as the man who led into the wilderness the goat which had been rendered unclean through the imposition of sin, became himself unclean in consequence (Lev 16:26). Even the sprinkling water prepared from the ashes defiled every one who touched it (Num 19:21). But when the ashes were regarded in relation to their appointment as the means of purification, they were to be treated as clean. Not only were they to be collected together by a clean man; but they were to be kept for use in a clean place, just as the ashes of the sacrifices that were taken away from the altar were to be carried to a clean place outside the camp (Lev 6:4). These defilements, like every other which only lasted till the evening, were to be removed by washing. The ashes thus collected were to serve the congregation נדּה למי, i.e., literally as water of uncleanness; in other words, as water by which uncleanness was to be removed. "Water of uncleanness" is analogous to "water of sin" in Num 8:7.
Use of the Water of Purification. - The words in Num 19:10, "And it shall be to the children of Israel, and to the stranger in the midst of them, for an everlasting statute," relate to the preparation and application of the sprinkling water, and connect the foregoing instructions with those which follow. - Num 19:1-13 contain the general rules for the use of the water; Num 19:14-22 a more detailed description of the execution of those rules.
Whoever touched a corpse, "with regard to all the souls of men," i.e., the corpse of a person, of whatever age or sex, was unclean for seven days, and on the third and seventh day he was to cleanse himself (התחטּא, as in Num 8:21) with the water (בּו refers, so far as the sense is concerned, to the water of purification). If he neglected this cleansing, he did not become clean, and he defiled the dwelling of Jehovah (see at Lev 15:31). Such a man was to be cut off from Israel (vid., at Gen 17:14).
Special instructions concerning the defilement. If a man died in a tent, every one who entered it, or who was there at the time, became unclean for seven days. So also did every "open vessel upon which there was not a covering, a string," i.e., that had not a covering fastened by a string, to prevent the smell of the corpse from penetrating it. פּתיל, a string, is in apposition to צמיד, a band, or binding (see Ges. 113; Ewald, 287, e.). This also applied to any one in the open field, who touched a man who had either been slain by the sword or had died a natural death, or even a bone (skeleton), or a grave.
Ceremony of purification. They were to take for the unclean person some of the dust of the burning of the cow, i.e., some of the ashes obtained by burning the cow, and put living, i.e., fresh water (see Lev 14:5), upon it in a vessel. A clean man was then to take a bunch of hyssop (see Exo 12:22), on account of its inherent purifying power, and dip it in the water, on the third and seventh day after the defilement had taken place, and to sprinkle the tent, with the vessels and persons in it, as well as every one who had touched a corpse, whether a person slain, or one who had died a natural death, or a grave; after which the persons were to wash their clothes and bathe, that they might be clean in the evening. As the uncleanness in question is held up as the highest grade of uncleanness, by its duration being fixed at seven days, i.e., an entire week, so the appointment of a double purification with the sprinkling water shows the force of the uncleanness to be removed; whilst the selection of the third and seventh days was simply determined by the significance of the numbers themselves. In Num 19:20, the threat of punishment for the neglect of purification is repeated from Num 19:13, for the purpose of making it most emphatic.
This also was to be an everlasting statute, that he who sprinkled the water of purification, or even touched it (see at Num 19:7.), and he who was touched by a person defiled (by a corpse), and also the person who touched him, should be unclean till the evening, - a rule which also applied to other forms of uncleanness.