The Sprinkling of Blood in Cleansing
Staying clean can be a dirty business. When Israelites became unclean through sin, disease, or simple contact with unclean things, they would have to be cleansed before they could once again worship with the covenant community. Sometimes this meant a simple washing. But most often it meant sacrifice and blood for “almost all things are by the law purged with blood.” And then, there was the most curious cleansing agent of all—the ashes of a heifer.
13 For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh:
14 How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
The Ashes of a Heifer
“The ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean”—a statement like that should make one wonder, particularly if it is directly compared with the blood of Christ. Obviously, the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of the heifer are shown to be inferior in the comparison. But if one doesn’t understand the inferior cleansing agents, one will fall short in appreciating the superior nature of the blood of Christ. It is to the sacrifice of the red heifer that Hebrews 13:12-13 alludes when it speaks of Christ suffering “without the gate.”
The foundational laws concerning the sacrifice of the red heifer are contained in Numbers 19. I suggest the reader take a moment to read this important chapter before proceeding as I will not be quoting its verses in entirety for brevity’s sake. Back already? Great! Let’s examine the highlights of this most peculiar of sacrifices.
Before we even get past verse 2, the unusual aspects of this sacrifice should arrest our attention. First of all, it was a heifer—a cow that had not yet calved. I don’t know about you, but that a female animal should typify Christ strikes me as unusual. Next, this heifer had to be of a particular color—red. Think of how large a cow can get and then imagine how rare a find it would be if you had a red one with no white hairs whatsoever! The red of the heifer’s hair was an external signification of the internal reality of the life of its blood. Its relation to Christ and His sacrifice should be obvious. While hanging on the cross, our Lord was covered in His own blood. He was more than likely stained red from head to toe. The red heifer was to be like the Passover lamb: without spot or blemish. But in addition to this, it was required that a yoke had never been put upon it. This sacrifice was to be one that had never been in bondage. Our Lord Jesus was without spot or blemish. And unlike the detractors of His day, He was never in bondage to anyone.
Not only was the sacrifice itself distinctive, the way it was sacrificed was also unusual. Though it was a sacrifice of high importance, the high priest didn’t perform it. She was sacrificed, not before the altar, but “without the camp” (verse 3). The fat and choice parts weren’t removed and burned on the brazen altar. Instead, the entire body—hide, flesh, blood, intestines (dung and all)—was burned (verse 5). The typical sprinklers, cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet, were thrown on the pyre as well (verse 6).
Though the ashes thus produced are used in various cleansing ceremonies, its primary use was for cleansing from the defilement of death (verses 11-16). Accordingly, the priest who offered the sacrifice became unclean in doing so, having been touched by the death of the heifer itself (verse 7). A clean person was then to gather up the ashes to be kept as a main ingredient in “the water of separation” (verse 9). Literally meaning “the water of sin,” its significance is a water of purification from sin. The ultimate manifestation of sin’s defilement is death.
When one became defiled by contact with death (i.e., a corpse, a grave, etc.), they stood in need of the “water of separation.” The ashes of the heifer were mixed with running water (verse 17). If you have a King James Version with center references, you will see that “running water” is also called “living water.” That is exactly what living water is. It is moving water. This is why John baptized in the River Jordan. Baptism required living water. The ash and water mixture was then sprinkled on the unclean person by a clean person using hyssop as a sprinkler. Notice that it is the clean that are used to cleanse the unclean (verses 18-19).
Because the blood of the heifer was sprinkled toward the tabernacle (verse 4), it stands as an atoning sacrifice even though it wasn’t killed in the court and its blood directly applied on the altar. Since the blood (along with the typical sprinklers) was entirely burned with the animal, its ashes have cleansing power. Think of the ashes of the red heifer as sacrificial bouillon. When a priest mixed those ashes with water, he was in essence bringing the entire sacrifice of the heifer into play. The ashes had the full impact of the blood and burnt offering of the heifer.
Living water is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. In the water of separation, we have another example of the connection between the Spirit and the blood. It is the water that brought the cleansing power of the ash to the worshiper. In our lives, it is the Spirit that brings the cleansing power of the blood to us. We see a similar demonstration of this in the cleansing of the leper, with one added nuance.