“Who trusted God was love indeed / And love Creation’s final law / Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw / With ravine, shriek’d against his creed.” (Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H., Canto 56, 1850)
“The last enemy that will be abolished is death.” (1Corinthians 15:26 NASB)
A major message of the Bible is death is out of place in the order God created. In the Torah reading חֻקַּת Chukat/Khuqat (“statute of”), we will learn more about Heaven’s antidote to death, foretold in the rituals of the red heifer and the bronze serpent. Both point to the Messiah, Yeshua (Jesus).
Numbers 19: Mysterious red heifer
Before we start jumping into symbolic interpretations of Scripture, we must ground our understanding in the literal meaning. Before drawing parallels, we have to understand the simple message.
The red heifer is the only sacrifice that is offered and stored outside the Tabernacle. When God set up the Tabernacle, He told the people that the Tabernacle was to be the only place one could bring Him sacrifices and gifts, yet the red heifer was to sacrificed and its ashes stored outside the holy precinct.
The red heifer was to be “unblemished,” which some say means that it should be completely red, down to its hooves. They also said that the heifer should not have two hairs next to each other that aren’t red. Tradition also teaches that only nine red heifers were offered during the entire time the Temple was in operation. They believe that the 10th red heifer is a harbinger of final redemption, which is why there are pious Jews eagerly looking for a red heifer.
Cedar and hyssop were burned with the red heifer. Both are red and both are known for keeping items from getting by bugs, larvae and germs. A scarlet thread was also burned with it. These “preservatives” were thrown into the red heifer fire in a bundle.
Bible symbolism: Red = dirt = blood = life
“‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.’” (Leviticus 17:11 NASB)
The blood of animals doesn’t clean the conscience. The blood sacrifice is there to set your mind in the right direction. The blood isn’t spilled for its own sake, it’s the life flowing out that has significance. A spotless life has to end before you can go further into God’s presence. Our sin, our treason against our King, is taken away with the blood sacrifice performed by the High Priest alone.
There are connections in the sacrifices and symbols between all the Holy Days. All of them are there to teach us and prepare us for the next world as we read at the end of the Book of Revelation.
“So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. “For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.” (John 6:53–56 NASB)
The offerings and the blood of all the sacrifices point to the Messiah’s blood, His life. It is His life that brings atonement. Many of the prophets were given very jarring, very repugnant lessons by God to show the people how far away they had strayed from Him.
Yeshua says that it is His life that covers us. Do we accept that?
“‘Come now, and let us reason together,’ says the LORD, ‘Though your sins are as scarlet, They will be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They will be like wool.’” (Isaiah 1:18 NASB)
The first generation that left Egypt had to be transformed, but they refused. It was the second generation who were ready to enter the Promised Land. We want to be like the second generation, not the first generation. We want to trust God and leave our prior life behind. We will fail in our new walk if we do it on our own effort.
This is not merely ancient history. It’s something we all experience as we go from our old way of life to our new way of life.
An unusual offering
Offerings were to be presented only at the Sanctuary, but the red heifer was the only sacrifice to be made outside the camp (Numbers 19:3).
The red heifer is required for sanctifying the Sanctuary but it makes those who come in contact with it unclean (Numbers 19:7–8):
- High priest.
- Attendant who burns it.
The very red heifer that made those people who had been in contact with the dead ceremonial clean made those who prepared it unclean in the first place. That which brought so much purification, healing and removal of the stain of death also brought so much uncleanness.
The entire Tabernacle/Temple system depends on the Red Heifer. Without this sacrifice outside the camp, the function of the Tabernacle/Temple would grind to a halt.
The fear of contact with death was an important plot devise in the Parable of the Good Samaritan to explain why the priest and the levite didn’t want to render aid to the bruised and beaten man on the side of the road.
The Red Heifer shows us that we have to look at what God is actually doing, rather than what we think God is doing. The Red Heifer points to Yeshua.
Hebrews 9: Mystery of the red heifer revealed
Yeshua is not an angel, He carries God’s name. He is the Rest of the children of Israel, their true shalom and source of their well-being. He is where we belong.
We have emigrated to a new home, a new identity. Not many of us understand how important that is and that all of us must die to our old life, not just people we consider seriously sinful, such as drug addicts or alcoholics. Our progress from the old man to the new man needs to be just as systematic and all encompassing as the 12-step programs that have successfully walked drug addicts and alcoholics away from their addictions for good.
We are first introduced to Yeshua as the High Priest in Hebrews 4, and it reaches the crescendo in Hebrews 9.
“For if the blood of goats and bulls and 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 Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:13-14 NASB)
Humanity’s deal with death can only be broken by the death and resurrection of the Messiah.
When we take up our cross daily, we are acknowledging the old life has to die. This is the only way the second birth is successful.
This is to cleanse our consciences from dead works, so when we go out from the person we once were, we can truly leave that person behind. The person we once were will not be held against us. This is not condemnation, but deliverance.
We see the problem of death is something that God is going to resolve. God will not allow the death that surrounds us to be a permanent situation. He will wipe all our tears, the power and stench of death will be no more.
Numbers 21: Serpent on the pole
The children of Israel are complaining about the fact that they can’t take a shortcut through the land of Edom and returned to their griping, mumbling and complaining. They’re still rebelling against Moses and Aaron. They hated the manna God provided for them. There was also no water in sight. They had already forgotten the many times God miraculously given them water.
There’s Hebrew word play in the words for serpent and copper.
The bronze serpent was made from נְחשֶׁת n’chosheth (H5178), or copper.
Copper is reddish. Red = life.
The word for serpent, נָחָשׁ nachash (H5175) comes from נָחַשׁ nachash (H5172) which means “to hiss” or “to incant a spell.”
Seraphim comes from the verb שָׂרַף saraph (H8313), which means “to set on fire.”
The complaining from the children of Israel sounded like hissing in God’s ears so He sent an animal that hisses to punish them.
They had to look at an image of that which should kill them and cured them. Salvation came in the midst of judgement. For those who were willing to turn away from rebellion and look at the pole and they would be alright.
They had kept the bronze serpent around for centuries before it had to be destroyed because it had become a target of the people’s idolatrous inclination.
Yeshua spoke of the bronze serpent in His discourse with Nicodemas, a leader in the Sanhedrin.
“ ‘No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.’ ” (John 3:13-17 NASB)
The picture of lifting up the serpent in the midst of rebellion is a symbol of salvation and it was there as long as they needed it. Salvation wasn’t limited to the short time Yeshua was physically on the cross. His offer of salvation is there for us forever. He is the eternal High Priest. The reason we know this is that Yeshua didn’t just die on a cross, but He was resurrected and ascended bodily into Heaven.
What it truly means to be Torah-observant
Anything can become an idol of one’s heart is not in the right place. That’s what happened with the Ark of the Covenant and the Bronze Serpent. Even the tzitzitot (tassels at the corners of garments) we wear can become an idol. God gave us memorials and reminders but we are to fix our minds on God, not on these things. The Ark, the Bronze Serpent and the tzitzit are not special in and of themselves.
Romans 2:12–24 provides a good reality check about how we approach God’s memorials and symbols. For all the good we think we are doing, if we are not transformed, as the second generation were, we can be tearing apart the Kingdom of God, acting as poor ambassadors. The entire Torah is a story of birth and rebirth of the nation of God. It was true then, and it’s true now.
Banner Photo: Red, Cooper, Fire, Serpents and Seraphim. “The Angel in the Tile” Photo from FreeImages.com/Josh Peltier. Creative Commons License.