Numbers 19: Lessons from the Red Heifer Sacrifice Regarding Jesus’ Atonement for Humanity’s Intentional Sins

The Red Heifer sacrifice foreshadowed Jesus1

Introduction: Here, God revealed unique instructions for the Jews to sacrifice a “red heifer” on special occasions. The Jews could not turn to any other part of the Torah for further explanation of this special sacrifice. Nor is there an example of this sacrifice in the Old Testament. It foreshadowed the one sacrifice that Jesus would make to forever fulfill the need for sacrifices. While regular sacrifices could cover unintentional sins, this was a special sacrifice for intentional sins. The blood of Jesus is so strong that it can atone for both even your intentional sins.

1. The Mystery of the Red Heifer, “Parah Adumah”. Nu. 19:1-22.

  • The special ordinance for the hed heifer. God outlined His special procedures for the sacrifice of the red heifer: “Then the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 2 ‘This is the statute of the law which the Lord has commanded, saying, ‘Speak to the sons of Israel that they bring you an unblemished red heifer in which there is no defect and on which a yoke has never been mounted. 3 And you shall give it to Eleazar the priest, and it shall be brought outside the camp and be slaughtered in his presence. 4 And Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle some of its blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times. 5 Then the heifer shall be burned in his sight; its hide, its flesh, and its blood, with its refuse, shall be burned. 6 And the priest shall take cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet material, and throw it into the midst of the burning heifer. 7 The priest shall then wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward come into the camp; but the priest will be unclean until evening. 8 The one who burns the heifer shall also wash his clothes in water and bathe his body in water, and will be unclean until evening. 9 Now a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and put them outside the camp in a clean place, and the congregation of the sons of Israel shall keep them for water to remove impurity; it is purification from sin. 10 And the one who gathers the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes and will be unclean until evening; and it shall be a permanent statute for the sons of Israel and for the stranger who resides among them. 11 ‘The one who touches the dead body of any person will also be unclean for seven days. 12 That one shall purify himself with the water on the third day and on the seventh day, and then he will be clean; but if he does not purify himself on the third day and on the seventh day, he will not be clean. 13 Anyone who touches a dead body, the body of a person who has died, and does not purify himself, defiles the tabernacle of the Lord; and that person shall be cut off from Israel. Since the water for impurity was not sprinkled on him, he will be unclean; his uncleanness is still on him. 14 ‘This is the law when a person dies in a tent: everyone who comes into the tent and everyone who is in the tent will be unclean for seven days. 15 And every open container, which has no cover tied down on it, will be unclean. 16 Also, anyone who in the open field touches one who has been killed with a sword or one who has died naturally, or touches a human bone or a grave, will be unclean for seven days. 17 Then for the unclean person they shall take some of the ashes of the burnt purification from sin and running water shall be added to them in a container. 18 And a clean person shall take hyssop and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it on the tent, on all the furnishings, on the persons who were there, and on the one who touched the bone or the one who was killed or the one who died naturally, or the grave. 19 Then the clean person shall sprinkle on the unclean on the third day and on the seventh day; and on the seventh day he shall purify him, and he shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and will be clean by evening. 20 ‘But the person who is unclean and does not purify himself, that person shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly, because he has defiled the sanctuary of the Lord; the water for impurity has not been sprinkled on him, so he is unclean. 21 So it shall be a permanent statute for them. And the one who sprinkles the water for impurity shall wash his clothes, and the one who touches the water for impurity will be unclean until evening. 22 Furthermore, anything that the unclean person touches will be unclean; and the person who touches it will be unclean until evening.’” (Nu. 19:1-22). Although most of these details were a mystery to the Jews at the time, the sacrifice pointed to Jesus.

  • Jewish puzzlement. To the Jews, the law regarding the red heifer was a mystery. It was what they called a “khot” or “chut.” To them, it was a Biblical law for which there is no apparent logic. Why does this sacrificial ordinance appear in Numbers and not in Leviticus? Why was the ritual radically different from every kind of sacrifice in the Bible? How could the red heifer ashes contaminate the priest and then later clean others? The rabbis claimed that it was one of the mysteries that God did not intend for us to understand. They taught that we must simply follow it by faith and in obedience to God.

  • Christian indifference. For the typical Christian, the red heifer sacrifice is either unknown or irrelevant. Whatever its purpose must have been, most are content to know that Jesus has fulfilled it, and that they no longer need to follow it. If neither the Jews nor the Christians sacrifice red heifers today, why does anyone need to study it?

  • Simplistic misinterpretation. Some commentators have attempted to reduce this most sacred sacrifice to a simplistic interpretation. Some presume that the red heifer ashes were merely the proper cleansing agent for a people who needed to dispose of dead bodies while traveling in the wilderness. Yet, if this interpretation were correct, Christians would be justified in ignoring this law. It would have no relevance today. More importantly, this interpretation is wrong. This sacrifice was in fact second in importance to only Abraham’s faith to sacrifice his own son. In terms of actual sacrifices that were completed, this was supreme. It foreshadowed Christ’s ability to forgive even intentional rebellions against God’s Law.

2. Seven Facts Making the Red Heifer Unique Amongst the Jewish Sacrifices

(1) The burning of the entire animal was unique. God advised that the entire red heifer was to be burned outside of the camp (Nu. 19:5). Normally, only the flesh of a sacrifice had to be taken outside of the camp to be burned (Lev. 4:12; 9:11; Ex. 29:14). The rest of the sacrifice was normally burned at the bronze altar of judgment, and the priests were also allowed to eat portions of the sacrifice, which God had made holy (Nu. 18:10). This suggested something extraordinary. The entire sacrifice had become the embodiment of sin.

With the red heifer sacrifice, the entire sacrifice had to be burned outside of the camp2

(2) Only a few drops of blood from this sacrifice were needed to forgive sin. (Nu. 19:5). Only a few drops of blood were spared. The priest sprinkled blood with his finger seven times toward the front of the tent of meeting (Nu. 19:4). The rest of the blood of the red heifer had to be burned (Nu. 19:5). For all other sacrifices, the blood was not burned. For other sacrifices, after the blood was sprinkled on the doorway of the tent of meeting and the horns of the altar, the rest of the blood was poured at the base of the altar (Lev. 1:5; 9:9; Nu. 18:17). Here again, this suggested something extraordinary. The sacrifice “who knew no sin [was made] to be sin on our behalf. . ..” (2 Cor. 5:21). Yet, even a few drops from its blood were enough to atone for the sins of the people.

(3) The priest did not slay the red heifer. Aaron, the high priest, could not even escort the animal outside of the camp for fear of contamination. Instead, the second in command amongst the priests, Eleazar, brought the animal outside the camp for the sacrifice (Nu. 19:3). Although the animal was slaughtered in Eleazar’s presence (Nu. 19:3), it was a lay person who slaughtered the animal outside the camp (Nu. 19:8). Merely being in the presence of the red heifer required the priest to wash his clothes and his body. Even after doing this, the priest remained unclean until evening (Nu. 19:7). The lay person who merely gathered the ashes became unclean and had to wash himself and his clothes (Nu. 19:9). For every other sacrifice under God’s Law, the priest was the one who performed the sacrifice. The priests also did not become unclean by performing the sacrifice. This suggested that the animal became toxic in the sin of a moment. Yet, everything would change later. Its ashes would miraculously purify any who were washed with it (Nu. 19:9). To the Jews, this made no sense. But they only saw the shadow of Christ.

(4) The sacrifice appears nowhere within the laws of Leviticus. The laws of Leviticus specified specific procedures to be followed for every kind of unintentional sin (Lev. 4:1). These sacrifices include bulls, goats, oxen, sheep, and doves. But nowhere do these laws ever mention the sacrifice of a female cow. Nor did the laws contemplate any way to atone for intentional sin. Thus, this suggested this sacrifice for something unique and extraordinary.

(5) The ceremony amplifies the cleansing rituals for cleansing lepers. The ceremonies for both cleansing lepers and for the red heifer involved cedar wood, a hyssop branch, and scarlet wool yarn. With the lepers, these three things were used with blood and water to purify the cleansed leper (Lev. 14:4-7). By contrast, with the red heifer, all three of these things are thrown in the fire (Nu. 19:6). Leprosy symbolizes sin in the Bible. Like leprosy, sin causes the victim to become numb to the pain he or she is causing in his or her life (Eph. 4:10; 1 Tim. 4:2). As stated above, the simplistic interpretation of this story is that the red heifer ashes were for those exposed to dead people (Nu. 19:11-22). Yet, because leprosy is a contagious disease while being in the proximity of a dead person is not, one would expect the cleansing procedures for leprosy to be more severe. Thus, we must look to what the dead people symbolized to understand its hidden meaning. Death is in fact the advanced and terminal stage of sin (Ro. 6:23). Death was not part of God’s original plan. It came from the original curse (Gen. 3:19; Ro. 5:14-19). Thus, a person contaminated by death could not be in God’s Tabernacle (Lev. 12:1; 15:24). Anyone who touched a corpse was unclean for seven days (Nu. 19:11). Even being within the tent of a dead person would cause uncleanness for seven days (Nu. 19:14). With 250 men of renown followed by 14,700 struck down in Korah’s rebellion (Nu. 16:35, 49), nearly every family would have been in contact with a dead person. Nearly every family would have been infected by the global sin of rebellion. Yet, thankfully, we serve a living God (Rev. 7:2). He provided the red heifer to atone for the severe sin of rebellion against God’s Law, for which no prior cure existed.

(6) The red heifer was the delayed antidote to the golden calf. According to Jewish tradition, the red calf corresponded in some way to the golden calf. Yet, God delayed in offering the antidote to this sin. The building of the golden calf was the Jews seventh rebellion after escaping Egypt (Ex. 32:1-6). At that time, the people did not repent. Thus, they received the judgment for their sins by drinking the ashes of the golden calf (Ex. 32:20). The cleansing ashes of the red heifer were not given until many years later. It was revealed only after the Jews’ 12th rebellion (Satan’s counterfeit government of anarchy and rebellion) when 14,700 people rose up to protest at the death of Korah and his men (Nu. 16:41-49). Only after God reaffirmed His covenant with Aaron did the people understand for the first time that their intentional rebellions would result in their deaths. Moreover, they understood that there was no sacrifice to atone for their wrongs: “Behold, we perish, we are dying, we are all dying! Everyone who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of the Lord must die. Are we to perish completely?” (Nu. 17:12-13). Thus, God provided the means for mercy and grace only after the people understood their need for it (Ro. 3:20).

(7) The red heifer was only sacrificed nine times in Jewish history. If this sacrifice were merely for those exposed to dead persons, the sacrifice would have been performed on a weekly or daily basis. Instead, according to Jewish history, only nine red heifers were actually slaughtered in the period extending from Moses to the destruction of the Second Temple (Mishna Parah 3:5). By contrast, Yom Kippur happens only once a year (Lev. 16:29). This suggests that the red heifer was reserved for something extraordinary. Because ten is the number of God’s revelation from the Ten Commandments, many Jews understood that one more red heifer is still to come. As set forth below, that tenth sacrifice has in fact come.

3. Seven Shadows of the Messiah.

The sacrifices were a “copy and shadow” of Christ (Heb. 8:4-5; Col. 2:16-17). Thus, the red heifer should foreshadow Christ. It should also tell us something unique that Christ did for us. If it were just a random sacrifice, there is nothing to be learned from it.

Each aspect of the sacrifice foreshadowed Jesus3

(1) The sacrifice on Calvary Hill. The sacrifice was led outside the camp to be killed (Nu. 19:5). By Jewish tradition, the red heifer was sacrificed on a hill just outside the gate of Jerusalem so that its blood could be accurately sprinkled toward the tent of meeting. Jesus was sacrificed on Calvary Hill, to the North of Jerusalem. His blood was spilled facing the tent of the meeting. This conformed to the sacrificial requirements (Heb. 13:11-13).

(2) The sacrifice was without defect, led by the priest, but killed by a lay person. The red heifer, like all sacrifices, had to be “without blemish” to atone for sins (Nu. 19:2; Lev. 1:3; 4:2-12; 16:11). As stated above, the priest led the sacrifice to be slaughtered, but a lay person killed it (Nu. 19:3, 8). Jesus was the sacrifice “without defect” offered for our sins (1 Pet. 1:18-19). He was led to the sacrifice by the false charges of the priests. Yet, it was a lay Roman soldier who nailed Him to the cross and actually pierced Him. This is no mere coincidence.

(3) The few drops of blood cast toward the door to the tent of meeting. Only a few drops of blood needed to be cast toward the veil or the doorway to the Holy of Holies (Nu. 19:4; Lev. 1:5; 4:6). The curtain symbolized a barrier of sin between man and God (Is. 59:2). Jesus is the doorway, which leads to God’s presence (Jo. 10:7; 9). The blood was the life of the animal (Gen. 9:4; Lev. 17:11). “[A]ll things are cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” (Heb. 9:22). The seven drops of blood represented a complete atonement, nothing was left undone (Nu. 19:4; Lev. 1:5; 4:6). A few drops of Christ’s blood spilled as He faced the temple from Calvary Hill. Christ’s death and His blood brought such complete atonement that the curtain was ripped from the top to the bottom (Matt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38). Because He came to fulfill the Law (Matt 5:18), Jesus also was able to touch the dead daughter of Jairus and bring her back to life (Mk. 5:22-23; 38-42). He also went into the tomb of Lazarus (Mary’s brother) and brought him from the dead (Jo. 11:32-45). Jesus could touch these dead bodies without breaking the Law because he brought them to life (Ro. 5:18). The tenth red heifer has already come.

(4) The red heifer and the red yarn (Nu. 19:6; Lev. 14:4). God later told Daniel that, in the last days, “many shall be purified and made white”; a reference to the purification ritual of the red heifer (Dan. 12:10). “Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be as white as snow (Is. 1:18). Red is the color of sin and blood. The heifer had to be pure red. According to Jewish tradition, a single black hair made it unfit for sacrifice. The wool to be thrown in the fire also had to be dyed red. Christ became sin for us. His blood made us clean.

(5) The cedar wood. Cedar is referred to in the Bible as one of the strongest woods (Nu. 19:6; 24:6; 2 Sam. 5:11; 7:7; 1 Kgs. 4:33). Christ is strong and mighty. There is no power that He lacks. He is omnipotent (Matt. 28:18). “By means of him, all things were created in the heavens and upon the earth . . .” (Col. 1:16-17). Jesus was the “Alpha and the Omega, the one who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev. 22:13). He gave the strength of His life in the fire of judgment so that we could have strength.

(6) The hyssop branch. The hyssop branch was a small weak branch that symbolizes cleansing in the Bible (Nu. 19:6, 18; Lev. 14:4, 6, 49, 51-52; Ps. 51:7). It is placed here as a direct contrast to the cedar wood. The plant is of the mint family. The mint would have helped remove the odor of sin. It had a straight stalk and white flowers. The straight stalk symbolized a right path, and the white flowers symbolize purity. The leaves also had hairs that trapped liquids and made it ideal for sprinkling (Heb. 9:19; Ex. 12:22; Jo. 19:29). Christ was the righteous branch (Jer. 23:5; 33:15). Hebrews tells us that He was the one who sprinkled His blood on us (Heb. 9:21). Although Christ was as strong as the cedar woods, He was meek like the lowly hyssop branch as He was led to death on our behalf. “Being found in appearance of a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:8).

(7) The cleansing on the third and seventh days. The few drops of the sacrifice could forgive even intentional rebellions. Yet, the priest and the lay person could still become dirtied by the world. Thus, both the body and clothes of the priest and the lay person had to be completely immersed in water to be washed clean (Nu. 19:7, 10; Lev. 14:8, 9). Likewise, Aaron and his sons were to be washed with water after they were consecrated as priests (Lev. 8:6). After God warned that He will not hear the prayers of a sinner, His first piece of advice is to: “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean.” (Isa. 1:16). He can also wash us of any uncleanness (Ps. 51:1-7). Christ will wash us of our sins when we confess our sins and when we read the Word, which brings the knowledge of sin (1 Jo. 1:9; Eph. 5:26).

  • The third day. The person exposed to the ashes of sin had to be washed on the third day (Nu. 19:12). Three is the number of the Trinity. Jesus is the living water, who rose on the third day to purify our sins (Jo. 4:10-11; 7:38). Have you washed yourself with Jesus’ Word to cleanse the ashes of sin from this world that coat your feet and hands?

  • The seventh day. The second cleansing was on the seventh day (Nu. 19:12). Seven symbolizes completeness. There is no intentional sin in your life that Jesus cannot cleanse. Yet, you first need to confess that sin (1 Jo. 1:9). Are there any hidden sins that you have not yet confessed and asked Jesus to cleanse?

4. Seven Applications For our Own Lives.

(1) Have faith in Christ’s power to forgive your intentional sins. We don’t make sin offerings today because Christ’s death was a one-time sacrifice (Heb. 10:14). “For if the . . . ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of the Messiah . . .” (Heb. 9:13-14). Thus, you have no reason to doubt Christ’s ability to atone for even the worst of your sins. As long as you are born again and repent, you need not fear the death around you which would otherwise keep you from God’s presence (Jo. 3:2-6, 14-17). If you have intentionally sinned and you have repented, is there any reason why you can’t serve God? Moses and Paul both murdered other people. David committed adultery. Is there any sin that you have that is greater?

(2) Give your life as a thank offering. Sacrificing a flawless animal would be expensive. It would also be gross to watch. This is how our sins appear to God. The price Christ paid for your sins was not cheap. Today, as a holy priest (1 Pet. 2:5, 9), you do not need to butcher your most expensive possessions to forgive your sins. You also don’t have to bear the “yoke” to earn your salvation (Nu. 19:1). Christ did that for you. He did even more than was required to be the red heifer sacrifice by bearing the yoke of not just His burdens, but all of ours as well (Nu. 19:1). What does this motivate you to do for God? (Rom. 12:1-2).

(3) Be sanctified by avoiding the dead things of the world. The Jews understood that death made those who came near it to be ritually unclean. There are dead sinful things everywhere around you in this world. Just as in the time of Korah, our society has rebelled against God. Have you kept yourself separated and undefiled by these sins of the world?

(4) Cleanse yourself by the washing of Christ’s Word. We are commanded to wash ourselves and our clothes (Nu. 19:19). This symbolizes the cleansing of sin (Ps. 51:2; Jer. 2:22). When Peter asked Jesus to wash his feet, hands, and head, Jesus responded: “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet.” (Jo. 13:10). In other words, Christ died once to cover our sins, but our flesh must still be washed from our daily sins. God tells us that there are two things we must do to cleanse ourselves to be ready to become the bridge of Christ. First, you read the Word to wash yourself (Eph. 5:26; Prov. 30:5). Second, you must confess your sins to be cleansed of “all unrighteousness.” (1 Jo. 1:9; Acts 3:19; Jo. 15:3; 1 Cor. 6:11).

(5) Let God be your strength. (the cedar wood). We are commanded to throw our cedar wood into the fire like Christ did (Nu. 19:5). In lieu of yourself, you should draw your strength from God (Ps. 28:7). With God as your strength, you do not need to fear evil. He gives you a spirit of strength with the Holy Spirit (Ro. 8:15). You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you (Phil. 4:13). Thus, a new or rededicated believer does not need to fear for their jobs, their needs, or their old enemies. Are you able to give this advice to others without being a hypocrite? Does fear still rule any part of your life?

(6) Be humble. (the hyssop branch). We are commanded to both throw our hyssop branch in the fire and be cleansed with it (Nu. 19:6, 18). Are you like the lowly hyssop branch? Do you avoid arguments, even when you are right? Do you stay calm in stressful situations? Are you, like the hyssop branch, spreading the blood of Christ to those around you?

(7) Be clothed in Christ’s righteousness. (the scarlet yarn). The clothing yarn was thrown in the fire, and the clothes also had to be washed (Nu. 19:6, 19). Clothes in the Bible symbolized a person’s acts, fruits, endeavors, or righteousness. A sinner’s clothes are but filthy rags to God (Isa. 64:6). Christ instead will clothe you with His righteousness (Matt. 6:30). For those who persevere for Him, they will receive white linens (Rev. 3:5; Isa. 64:6). If “you want to clothe yourself with Christ”' instead of our own filthy rags, be baptized into Christ (Gal. 3:27; Ro. 6:3-7).

5. The Red Heifer Was Available to All Nations in Rebellion Against God.

  • Christ will sprinkle the nations. Isaiah predicted that the Messiah would “sprinkle many nations.” (Is. 52:15). Christ died because God loved all the people of the Earth (Jo. 3:16). Thus, the ashes of the red heifer (Christ) are available to everyone.

  • God forgave the Jews for their rebellions in response to Moses’ prayers. God spared the Jewish nation in response to Moses’ prayers after they made the golden calf (Ex. 32:11-14). He again spared the Jews again in response to Moses’ prayer after they rebelled at the edge of the Promised Land (Nu. 14:18-22). He also spared the Jews in response to the prayers of Moses and Aaron after Korah, the 250 men of renown and then the 14,700 rebelled (Nu. 16:21-24). This power was not unique to Moses. Are you praying for the nation?

  • Christ forgave the Jews when they rebelled against Him. One of Christ’s last seven statements before His death was the following prayer: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Lk. 23:34). As the power behind the red heifer, Christ had the power to forgive the rebels who killed Him, even though they did not repent. If God the Father forgave the Jews’ rebellions in response to Moses’ prayers, should we doubt that He did after Christ’s prayer?

  • Pray for those who have intentionally sinned. As a holy priesthood (1 Pet. 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:6), God has also given you the power of intercessory prayer to pray in Jesus’ name for the nations. Are you using that prayer? Are you praying for the terrorists, the murders, the gangs, the drug dealers, and our rebellious nation? Did God give you a power so that you could ignore it? Are you not praying for these things because you lack the faith to believe that God will respond? Or, do you feel that these people should not be forgiven?

6. Beware of the Counterfeit Red Heifer in the End Times.

  • The Counterfeit Tenth Heifer. The Temple Institute is an organization dedicated to preparing the reconstruction of the Third Temple in Jerusalem. In 2010, it claimed for the first time to have a kosher red heifer ready for sacrifice once the Third Temple is built. The Jews understand that the red heifer is necessary for future Temple sacrifices because, without it, no one will be clean enough from the dead world around us to enter the Holy of Holies. Many believers in Christ believe that the building of the Third Temple will happen only after the false Messiah ushers in peace between the Arabs and the Jews in order for the temple to be built. Thus, beware of the counterfeit tenth sacrifice. It happened more than 2,000 years ago on Calvary Hill.