NUMBERS 19, 20 and 21
The water of cleansing in Numbers 19 was unusual. The animal killed was not sacrificed, but slaughtered outside the camp, rather than at the altar. It was a female, not a bull, and every part of it was burnt, including the blood and the offal. It was only needed to provide ashes that were themselves mixed with water to produce cleansing water. It seems almost magical, and certainly mystical – very distant from the authentic New Covenant activities. A strange fusion of ceremony and early medicine seem to be occurring. Cedar wood or its essential oil has, supposedly, antiseptic, antifungal, insecticide properties. Ashes may contain alkaline substances that have antibacterial effects too. However, the dilution effect of the water is likely to make the effect of any such dissolved chemicals negligible – unless you are into homeopathy, of course! But a cross-over between ceremonial sacrifice and some aspects of basic hygiene and medicine is very characteristic of these Old Covenant rituals. It might provide medical researchers with a fruitful line of enquiry to start with some of these ceremonial substances as a basis for their scientific work. Hyssop was a brush-like plant, good for dipping in liquids and sprinkling them on other objects. The New Covenant has in any case released us from these tedious rituals – all of them fulfilled entirely by Christ – and we can focus on serving the Lord with an already-cleansed conscience.
Numbers 20 marks the end of the line for three key players in this great drama. We experience a fast-forward in time, and it is now nearly 40 years since the rebellion of the Spies. Miriam died. Moses finally ‘snapped’ after 40 years of aggravation from the moaners and whiners; when God told him to speak to the rock to provide water, he ‘lost it’ and wacked it with his staff in anger and frustration at Israel’s pettiness and unbelief. The Lord regarded Moses’ behaviour as totally disrespectful and disobedient – even though 40 years previously he had commanded Moses to strike that same rock! Moses’ punishment was to be excluded from seeing the Promised Land, and to die in the desert with those same rebels. Those of us who consider this rather ‘harsh’ should also consider these two points: 1. Moses had spent at least 40 years in the intimate presence and glory of God, seeing far more than any other man had been permitted to see, and learning so much first-hand from the Lord. From those to whom much has been given, much is expected. 2. Moses was also the symbol, the ‘type’, of the Old Covenant Law itself. He only did one thing wrong and that was sufficient to disqualify him from his reward. James 2:10 puts it this way: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it”. If you want to be perfect by keeping the Law, then you have to keep it perfectly. Flawlessly! God is not saying that all sins are equally bad (a common error held by evangelical Christians), but that even a slight failure in a minor sin will have major consequences. (If God regarded all sins as equally bad, then why does his own law issue varying punishments for them?) The appearance of the New Covenant, based on grace through faith was overdue!
Finally, Aaron died, after passing on his priestly garments, and therefore his priestly office, to his son Eleazar. Within a single chapter, the three key leaders of the nation had been disposed of and a new leadership was being sought.