Right off the bat, I have to be honest. This was a weird chapter, and it was difficult to settle on what I was going to write about. It felt a little hard to "get my bearings" in this chapter. First of all, I don’t understand why the red heifer. After doing some research, the best I could find was that it may have been another repudiation of Egyptian custom and tradition. Apparently, the Egyptians regularly sacrificed red heifers in worship to their "evil god" Typhon. But that connection was somewhat tenuous, at best.
It was a very practical chapter, to be sure. Since God had declared that this particular "generation" of Israelites wouldn’t see the Promised Land, that meant nearly 1.2 million people would die in the desert within the coming 40 years — nearly 2,500 funerals a month. The Israelites were going to start coming into contact with a lot of dead bodies. So, in light of that, I guess I can understand the need for the cleansing ritual.
Here’s the thing that got me, though: "The man who sprinkles the water of cleansing must also wash his clothes, and anyone who touches the water of cleansing will be unclean till evening." (vs 21) Ummm, how could the "water of cleansing" make someone unclean? Isn’t it there to cleanse you?
As I mulled this over, it occurred to me that, perhaps, it wasn’t the water of cleansing that actually made a person clean. It certainly seems like that’s what God was saying to the Israelites — just in case they were inclined to think there was something "magic" in the water! But, if the water didn’t have the ultimate cleansing effect, why go through the ritual?
I’d like to hear your thoughts. The best I could come up with is that it is God who makes us clean. In this case, physical cleansing was the issue, but perhaps God was also trying to teach us the same truth on the spiritual level. Through our relationship of faith with Him, it is God who makes us clean. Why, then, the water? Because concrete actions reveal abstract realities. A person who was willing to listen to God would demonstrate that willingness by following the ritual of cleansing — even if the heifer-ash water didn’t have any magical cleansing power.
Our true characters are only revealed in the midst of circumstances. God knows the abstract contents of our hearts, but others don’t, and often we don’t. For that reason, God doesn’t deal in generalities and vagueness. He finds ways to turn the abstract into concrete so we can see clearly — see Him for who He is and see our sin for what it is.