New European Commentary


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Deeper Commentary


Num 19:1 Yahweh spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying-
This sacrifice was to provide purification from death through its ashes, which were to be mixed with water (:9), perhaps the running water from the rock, which water followed them through the wilderness- for what other source of “running [Heb. ‘springing’] water” (:17) could they have had in the wilderness? It speaks very clearly of Christ’s death; for He was without blemish and never came under the yoke of sin; He too was killed outside the camp of Israel (:3 cp. Heb. 13:12). Heb. 9:13 specifically alludes to how the ashes of this heifer were typical of Christ’s sacrifice.

The material in Num. 19 is in a block of material which follows on from Num. 15. There we read of the presumptuous sin, and there have been examples of this in Israel's presumptuous entry into the land in Num. 14 and the various rebellions of Israel against God's grace. Pardon was obtained for these at times by Moses' word alone ["I have pardonned according to your word"], or by the incense offered by Aaron. All these were 'last minute' interventions by Moses and Aaron when God had already determined to destroy Israel. I have noted earlier that these atonements were not made on the basis of blood, without which there can be no remission of sin, according to God's own principle. They were the result of grace. I suggest that now God is asking Eleazar to make a time specific opportunity for forgiveness and cleansing to be obtained through this red heifer. Lest Israel assume that forgiveness for condemnation was too automatic and painlessly granted. All such Old Testament forgiveness was in any case only made possible for the sake of the Lord's future sacrifice. And so the red heifer ritual in particular looks ahead to that. We note that the legislation about the red heifer was the last command given to Israel before they died in the desert. It was the chance for that generation to be cleansed of their sin and join Moses in hope of ultimate salvation, even if they couldn't enter the land in this life.

The red heifer was a "sin offering" (:9). But for what kind of sin? So far in Mosaic law, there had already been sacrifices prescribed for sins of human frailty, and for sins of ignorance. The only other kind of sin defined was that of presumption, from which some in Israel had received forgiveness by grace. I suggest the red heifer ritual was to explain that in these cases, the forgiveness was still related to the shedding of blood- but of a future sacrifice, of Messiah. However it has been apparent that even God's forgiveness of presumptuous sin, by grace, didn't achieve transformation of those thus benefitted. The red heifer sacrifice therefore had a function of purification, looking ahead to how the Lord's sacrifice according to Hebrews not only forgave, but empowered purification of the spirit.

Num 19:2 This is the statute of the law which Yahweh has commanded: Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring you a red heifer without spot, in which is no blemish-
No animal actually is without blemish. God recognizes that we will not attain perfection in this life, but we are to do our best towards it; and His love imputes righteousness to us, counting us as unblemished because of our status in Christ. For only Christ was the sacrifice totally without moral blemish (1 Pet. 1:19). So this looked ahead to the unblemished character of the Lord Jesus. The offering of sacrifices "without blemish" uses a word which is used about Abraham and Noah being "without blemish" (AV "perfect") before God (Gen. 6:9; 17:1). Although the word is used about the sacrifices, it is really more appropriate to persons- "you shall be perfect with Yahweh your God" (Dt. 18:13), "serve Him in sincerity (s.w. "without blemish")" (Josh. 24:14). The idea, therefore, was that the offerer was invited to see the animal as representative of himself. Our lives too are to be as "living sacrifices" (Rom. 12:1). And yet in practical terms, no animal is without blemish. They were to give the best they could, and God would count it as without blemish; as He does with us. David frequently uses the term in the Psalms about himself and the "upright", even though he was far from unblemished in moral terms.

The red heifer appears to have been the source of the water of cleansing which was required by many situations envisaged under the Mosaic law. But it is unclear whether multiple red heifers were to be slain to provide enough ashes to create such water, or whether this was a one off sacrifice and cleansing ritual to be done only in the wilderness. It is a deconstruction of the Egyptian sacrifice of a spotless red bull to Typhon, the god of evil, broadly equivalent to the [mis]conception of 'satan' held by many. It was deconstructed by this ritual, in that the red bull was to be offered to Yahweh, not a satan being; and would bring forgiveness and cleansing rather than safety from a 'satan' being. For human uncleanness rather than the supposed machinations of a 'satan' figure is where our focus should be.


And which was never yoked-
The red heifer as the source of cleansing through water [cp. baptism] looked ahead to the Lord Jesus. The naturalness which Jesus had with people reflects His respect for the freedom which God has given His people to chose for themselves. He was Himself supremely free, due to His pure conscience before the Father. He was typified by the red heifer “upon which never came yoke” (Num. 19:2). We were set free from sin by Christ through “freedom” (Gal. 5:1 RV). But we were set free by Him as a person. His freedom, His freedom from sin and the freedom that must have characterized His person, is what liberates us too. And it is the experience of that freedom, the freedom from sin that comes through forgiveness (Jn. 8:32), which can be ‘used’ to love others (Gal. 5:13).

Num 19:3 You shall give her to Eleazar the priest, and he shall bring her forth outside of the camp, and one shall kill her before his face-
The Red Heifer was to be slain before the face of the priest, "as he watches" (Num. 19:3-5 NIV), pointing forward to the Lord's slaughter in the personal presence of the Father. The Lord Jesus suffered and died, shedding the blood of atonement, "outside the camp" (Heb. 13:13). We are bidden go forth to the Lord Jesus "outside the camp", just as those who "sought Yahweh" did when there was no tabernacle (Ex. 33:7). The people watching Moses as he walked out to it, without the camp, therefore looks ahead to a faithless Israel lining the via Dolorossa and watching the Lord walk out to His place of crucifixion. And we are to get behind Him and follow Him there, stepping out from the mass of Israel. As the Lord Jesus suffered "outside the camp", so various parts of the Mosaic sacrifices were to be burnt there (Lev. 4:12,21; 8:17; 9:11; 16:27); and yet it was the blood of those sacrifices which achieved atonement (Heb. 13:11; Num. 19:3,9). "Outside the camp" was the place of excluded, condemned sinners (Lev. 13:46; 24:14; Num. 5:3,4; 15:35,36; 31:13,19), and it was here that the Lord Jesus died, in identification with us. 

NEB however takes "before its face" to mean "to the east of it", referring to the camp. The location of Golgotha is anyone's guess, but a case can be made that it was east of the temple in a public place on the east-west road along which the Romans often crucified people as a public warning. We note that Aaron camped to the east of the tabernacle (Num. 3:38). Eleazar then sprinkling the blood toward the front of the tent of meeting (:4) would then be more natural, if the heifer was slain to the east of it, facing toward it.

The specific mention of Eleazar leads us to think that this entire ritual was time limited, just for that generation. Possibly it was a ritual specifically to cleanse Israel from the sin of the golden calf [since Aaron was guilty of that sin, his son Eleazar had to perform the ritual], or more likely from the many dead bodies resulting from the 14,700 slain at the time of the rebellion in Num. 16. Possibly Aaron wasn't to do it because of the principle that he was not to depart from the sanctuary (Lev. 21:12), and this sacrifice was to be made outside the entire camp. We note that the animal was not to be sacrificed upon an altar- it was done outside the camp. It was a sacrifice quite unlike the previously explained sacrifices. The fat was not to be eaten, the offering priest was defiled by the ritual, the ashes have the power to cleanse going forward rather than the sacrifice needing to be repeated etc.

Num 19:4 Eleazar the priest shall take of her blood with his finger, and sprinkle her blood toward the front of the Tent of Meeting seven times-
The implication is that this process of cleansing from the results of death was to be permanent; but the whole style of the command for Eleazar to kill the red heifer in :2,3 sounds as if only one red heifer was killed for all time. See on :11. I suggested on Lev. 1:1 that all of Leviticus may be referring just to the ceremony of the sanctification of the priests when the tabernacle was first built, and this section in Num. 19 may be the same. There is no command as to continuing to kill a red heifer, nor by whom or how often it should be done. The record may be framed to present the result of the red heifer’s sacrifice as if it were eternal, clearly typifying Christ’s sacrifice. Another option is that this entire ritual is to be understood in the context of the death of so many Israelites in the rebellion described in chapter 16. Chapters 17 and 18 provide the answer to the peoples’ concerns arising out of that incident, and chapter 19 may also be in that context- describing how to avoid defilement by all the dead bodies which died in the plague. The specific mention of Eleazar, rather than a more generic reference to the High Priest or his son, could suggest that this red heifer ritual was a one off cleansing for the time. See on :11.

Num 19:5 One shall burn the heifer in his sight: her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, shall he burn-
No part of the animal was to be kept and eaten by the priests or Levites. I will suggest on :11 that the entire ritual was a one off situation, providing cleansing for those who were now going to bury the 15000 people slain as a result of the rebellion against Moses and Aaron in Num. 16; and this would have included many Levites, who had aspired wrongly to the priesthood. So it would have been inappropriate if they had eaten of the sacrifice themselves.

The ritual was intended to recall that of the Day of Atonement, when the sacrifices "shall be carried forth outside the camp; and they shall burn their skins, their flesh, and their dung with fire. He who burns them shall wash his clothes, and bathe his flesh in water, and afterward he shall come into the camp" (Lev. 16:27,28). Again the person associated with the offering is made unclean. The idea is that the red heifer ritual was to produce an atonement, it was a "sin offering" (:9), but I have suggested that it was a one-time ritual and we never hear of it being practiced in any ongoing sense in Biblical history. The atonement I suggest was for the presumptuous sins that had been forgiven without the shedding of blood. For every other kind of sin already had a sacrifice stipulated for it in Leviticus. It is the ritual of atonement for the unforgiveable and the condemned, and points ahead to the Lord's work on the cross.

Num 19:6 and the priest shall take cedar wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer-
All associated with the crucifixion of Christ. The Lord was intensely intellectually conscious throughout His sufferings. His mind was evidently full of the word, He would have seen the symbolism of everything far more than we can, from the thorns in His mock crown, to the hyssop being associated with Him at the very end (the hyssop was the fulfilment of types in Ex. 12:8,22; Lev. 14:4,6,49-52; Num. 19:6,18).

Cedar, hyssop and scarlet are all associated with the cleansing of leprosy, which I suggest was not Hansen's disease but a specific "stroke" of judgment. Miriam had been saved from this by Moses' intercession, she was as a walking corpse "like one who is dead" (Num. 12:12) as were the condemned Israelites in the desert whose corpses fell when they died; and the people had likewise been smitted but saved from it. Now they were being taught that these pardons still had to have their basis in the shedding of blood, even if the sacrifice was now offered some time later. And that is exactly how the Lord's later supreme sacrifice functioned, and for whose sake forgiveness was given in Mosaic times.

We note the dominance of the colour red. The red heifer, scarlet, the red cedar wood- and possibly hyssop too was a dark red colour. All this was to point up the huge significance of the blood in the cleansing- looking ahead to the blood of the Lord Jesus. A red heifer would have been rare and hard to find, again pointing forward to the Lord.

Num 19:7 Then the priest shall wash his clothes, and he shall bathe his flesh in water, and afterward he shall come into the camp, and the priest shall be unclean until the evening-
The defilement of the priest by the sacrifice is unique amongst all the offerings commanded. On one hand, it looks ahead to how the Lord Jesus died on the cross, and "cursed is every one who hangs on a tree" (Gal. 3:13). He was not made personally sinful by the process of His death, but He was thereby definitely associated with all that is unclean. We think of 2 Cor. 5:21 AV: "For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him". But in the immediate context, I suggest that these rituals were for the cleansing of the priesthood as well as the living supporters and relatives of those slain in the rebellion of the Levites in Num. 16. It could be that Aaron and the priesthood had given in to the pressure of the rebellious Levites and allowed some of them to come near to the sanctuary, and they had to bear guilt for this sin (Num. 18:1). Hence the commandment at this point that now they should never again allow Levites to come into the sanctuary (Num. 18:3,5). This makes better sense of the "henceforth..." in Num. 18:22: "Henceforth the children of Israel shall not come near the Tent of Meeting, lest they bear sin, and die". This is clearly given in the context of the rebellions of Num. 16,17, where the Israelites had tried to do this. And indeed it seems they had come near the tent of meeting and touched the holy things, and it was of grace that more of them had not been slain for doing so. I suggest that the priests had allowed the Levites and Israelites to come close to the sanctuary; they were not to ever do so again, and I suggest the unique cleansing sacrifice of the red heifer in Num. 19 was in order to cleanse them from this sin. According to the passages in Num. 18, the entire priesthood were worthy of death because of allowing the non priests into the sanctuary. But the red heifer ritual cleansed them from this sin unto death, and therefore becomes a powerful type of the Lord's stoning sacrifice for us as condemned sinners.   

One great mystery of the red heifer ritual is that it made unclean those who performed it. Rabbinic interpretation likes to stress the paradoxes within the red heifer ritual and leave them as intentional paradoxes. That approach may have some mileage, in that atonement is ultimately a mystery. However the simpler reading may be that the red heifer incident specifically points forward to the Lord Jesus, and those who were involved in His death [especially the priesthood] were themselves made unclean by it. But the simple picture is that the red heifer ritual purified the defiled, and defiled the pure. And this is really what happens when human beings encoutner the Lord's sacrifice. Some will insist they don't need it because they are already pure, considering they are healthy and don't need a doctor, as the Lord put it. And they, the pure in their own eyes, are thereby defiled. And yet it cleanses those who accept they are defiled.

Num 19:8 He who burns her shall wash his clothes in water, and bathe his flesh in water, and shall be unclean until the evening-
The ashes of the red heifer purified the impure / unclean, but defiled the clean. This is an intentional paradox, and is meant to highlight how the Lord's work can only benefit those who recognize their uncleanness. He is a doctor, and cannot heal those who consider they need no doctor. As explained on :7, the immediate context seems to be that the priesthood had been defiled by allowing the Levites to pressurize them to allow them to come close to the sanctuary; and this explains why there is so much uncleanness upon the Levites and priests associated with this sacrifice.  

Num 19:9 A man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and lay them up outside of the camp in a clean place; and it shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for a water for impurity. It is a sin offering-
We may well enquire what particular sin had been committed. Cleansing from impurity which arose from touching dead bodies didn't require a sin offering. I have suggested on :7 that the sin in view could be the way the priesthood had bowed to pressure from the Levites and allowed them to enter the sanctuary. But more likely the sin is the presumptuous sins of the recent rebellions which had been forgiven at the time by grace and without the shedding of blood.

Num 19:10 He who gathers the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the evening. It shall be to the children of Israel, and to the stranger who lives as a foreigner among them, for a statute forever-
I have discussed on :8 why there is so much uncleanness upon the Levites and priests associated with this sacrifice. But the reference to "a statue forever" could admittedly tend against my suggestion that this was a one time sacrifice to deal with the uncleanness and sin associated with the events of Num. 16,17. But "a statute for ever" is the term used about the regular annual keeping of the Passover and other annual feasts (Ex. 12:14,17,43) so the idea may be that the gross sin of the priests in allowing the Levites and others into the sanctuary was to be remembered each year in the red heifer ritual. Or "a statute forever" could as well mean that this is a law about a sacrifice with eternal effect and consequence. 

Num 19:11 He who touches the dead body of any man shall be unclean seven days-
There was already ritual provided to deal with being unclean from touching a corpse. The red heifer ritual is therefore relating to some specific one time defilement by corpses. The context is the death of so many rebels in Num. 16. "Tent" in :14 again suggests this was not a ritual for all time, but specific to them at that point living in tents. The whole camp was thereby unclean. Their relatives wanted to bury them, but they all had to therefore engage with the red heifer ritual. Or perhaps this is mentioned because this was an example of how the water of cleansing, made from the ashes of the red heifer, could be used. But if it were to be used every time there was a death, then it would've required many ashes from red heifers. We wonder therefore if these commands are specifically for the Levites at the sanctuary. Otherwise, there would need to be red heifer sacrifices and ashes made throughout Israel. I discussed on :4 how the impression could be taken that this was to be one sacrifice for all time (another element of how it typified the Lord's death), and that therefore it would only have been applicable to the wilderness situation. Perhaps what was specifically in view was the cleansing required for the 15000 people who had just been slain in the events of Num. 16,17, and who were now going to be buried. There would have been mass defilement of people during the burial and mourning process, and these people were sinners. Therefore there was this special cleansing ritual foreseen.


Num 19:12 The same shall purify himself with water on the third day, and on the seventh day he shall be clean; but if he doesn’t purify himself the third day, then the seventh day he shall not be clean-
This may have hints of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus on the third day, leading to our complete cleansing on the seventh day- God's Kingdom established on earth. See on :16.

The word chata "purify" occurs often here (:12,13,19,20). But this is the usual word translated 'sin' [or equivalent] about 200 times in the Hebrew Bible. Here the verb occurs in the piel and not the qal form. The sense is literally 'to un-sin'. No sacrifice in the Mosaic legislation so far could de-sin or un-sin a person. Such a word is hardly found in any other language, although German entsündigen may have something of the idea or English 'exonerate'. We have here a profound insight into the deep cleansing work of the Lord's sacrifice, a deep cleansing of the conscience beyond forgiveness. Truly here is a case where the closer one looks at God's word, the deeper is the beauty. We struggle with this experience because human forgiveness is not like this. It is at best a 'play on', an emotional position adopted by the forgiver, but the grant of human forgiveness cannot touch the conscience of the forgiven nor cleanse them before God. Only God's Son can say as He did to the woman in John 8, "I do not condemn you", and then speak of how that truth makes us free, we shall be "free indeed". Although the wonder of these things only has any moment if we are convicted of our sin first. Only then will our cleansing and freedom result in a flame of passionate devotion for Him who freed us.

And the wonder of it all is that the Lord's sacrifice is far more powerful than that of the red heifer: "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: 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" (Heb. 9:13,14). The use of chata here may be intended to suggest that this red heifer ritual pointed ahead to a sacrifice which would un-sin to the point of cleansing the conscience.

Num 19:13 Whoever touches a dead person, the body of a man who has died, and doesn’t purify himself, defiles the tent of Yahweh; and that soul shall be cut off from Israel. Because the water for impurity was not sprinkled on him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is yet on him-
This could mean that the dead bodies were of those who had defiled the tabernacle, referring to those of Korah's rebellion.

The sacrifice of the red heifer, like that of Christ, became meaningful and effective for the individual when mixed with water, which could suggest our need to appropriate the sacrifice of Christ to ourselves through baptism. This appears a very strict judgment for touching a corpse and then not having the red heifer ash water sprinkled. What if the red heifer hadn't been slain by the priest, what if the water wasn't available immediately, especially if the person was far from the sanctuary? But I have suggested on :7,11 that this is all in the specific context of the events of Num. 16,17; it was a one off requirement that those who were unclean because of those events should make use of the cleansing offered through the red heifer, or die in their sins. Likewise see on :20. There are many Biblical examples of men touching dead bodies, but there is never any future reference to the red heifer ritual. I suggest therefore that the dead bodies in view are specifically those of the slain rebels, and the red heifer legislation was uniquely relevant to them.

Being "cut off from Israel" may not mean that the person must be slain. For then the phrase "cut off from the earth" would have been used (as in Prov. 2:22 and often). The idea is that the person who ate leaven (Ex. 12:15) or was not circumcised (Gen. 17:14) was excluded from the community of God's people because they had broken or despised the covenant which made them His people. But there is no record of Israel keeping a list of 'cut off from Israel' Israelites and excluding them from keeping the feasts. So we conclude this means that God would consider such persons as cut off from His people. He would do the cutting off, and not men. In His book, they were "cut off". But there was no legal nor practical mechanism provided to Israel to manage the 'cutting off from Israel' of those who despised the covenant. The cutting off was done in God's eyes, in Heaven's record, and the Israelites were intended to continue to fellowship with such persons at the feasts. This is a strong argument for an open table, and for not seeking to make church excommunication the equivalent of this cutting off of the disobedient from the people of Israel. This explains why being "cut off from Israel" is the punishment stated for doing things which man could not see and judge- secretly breaking the Sabbath (Ex. 31:14), eating peace offerings whilst being unclean (Lev. 7:20- for how were others to know whether someone had touched the unclean, or was experiencing an unclean bodily emission), eating meat with blood still in it (Lev. 17:10,14), not adequately humbling the soul (Lev. 23:29), not keeping Passover (Num. 9:13), being presumptuous (Num. 15:30,31- only God can judge that), not washing after touching a dead body (Num. 19:13,20). This is why Lev. 20:6 makes it explicit that "I [Yahweh personally] will set My face against that person, and will cut him off from among his people". It is Yahweh who does the cutting off and not men (also 1 Sam. 2:33).

Num 19:14 This is the law when a man dies in a tent: everyone who comes into the tent, and everyone who is in the tent, shall be unclean seven days-
Once settled in the land, people would generally live in houses and not tents. We enquire why this particular reference to tents. I suggested on :4,7,11 that the specific reference of this whole ritual is to those made unclean and condemned to death because of the events of Num. 16. Therefore the reference to tents is specifically to the tents of the rebels and their supporters (Num. 16:26).

Num 19:15 Every open vessel, which has no covering bound on it, is unclean-
This hyper strictness is explained on :8.

Num 19:16 Whoever in the open field touches one who is slain with a sword, or a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days-
The seven day period is that of :12. The dead bodies and bones in view are specifically of the recently slain rebels. See on :4,7,11.

The enigmatic Jn. 7:38 alludes here: "He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly ("innermost being", NIV) shall flow rivers of living (Gk. spring) water". What "scripture" did the Lord have in mind? Perhaps the references to spring water being used to cleanse men from leprosy and death (Lev. 14:5; 15:13; Num. 19:16). Out of the innermost being of the true believer, the spring(ing) water of the Gospel will  naturally spring up and go out to heal men, both now and more fully in the Kingdom, aided then by the Spirit gifts. The believer, every  believer, whoever  believes, will preach the word to others from his innermost being, both now and in the Kingdom - without the need for preaching committees or special efforts (not that in themselves I'm decrying them). The tendency is to delegate our responsibilities to these committees. There is no essential difference between faith and works. If we believe, we will do the works of witness, quite spontaneously. And note how the water that sprung out of the Lord’s smitten side is to be compared with the bride that came out of the smitten side of Adam. We, the bride, are the water; thanks to the inspiration of the cross, we go forth in witness, the water of life to this hard land in which we walk.

Num 19:17 For the unclean they shall take of the ashes of the burning of the sin offering; and running water shall be put thereto in a vessel-
The Lord taught that He was the rock, and we like Israel drink of what came out of Him. The Law of Moses included several rituals which depended upon what is called " the running water" (Lev. 14:5,6,50-52; 15:18; Num. 19:17). "Running" translates a Hebrew word normally translated "living". This living water was what came out of the smitten rock. The Lord taught that the water that would come out of Him would only come after His glorification (Jn. 7:38)- an idea He seems to link with His death rather than His ascension (Jn. 12:28,41; 13:32; 17:1,5 cp. 21:19; Heb. 2:9). When He was glorified on the cross, then the water literally flowed from His side on His death. The rock was "smitten", and the water then came out. The Hebrew word used here is usually translated to slay, slaughter, murder. It occurs in two clearly Messianic passages: " ...they talk to the hurt of him [Christ] whom thou hast smitten" (Ps. 69:26); "we esteemed him [as He hung on the cross] smitten of God" (Is. 53:4). The living waters were representative of the Holy Spirit which is given to us- not the miraculous gifts, but the power of God within the human spirit, to bring us to have His Spirit and mind which was in Christ. It is this which now is the cleansing agent, making our sacrifices acceptable, cleansing our motives in a way in which we cannot do, at least not by any conscious intellectual process.

Num 19:18 and a clean person shall take hyssop, and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it on the tent, and on all the vessels, and on the persons who were there, and on him who touched the bone, or the slain, or the dead, or the grave-
We note the association of hyssop with the Lord's death on the cross (Jn. 19:29). That hyssop had been dipped in red wine, representing blood, and the Lord surely saw the relevance to Himself. "I am that hyssop", He would have thought. On the cross, He was the door (Jn. 10:9), and He experienced hyssop with red wine (representing blood) brushed against Him. Just as the doors at Passover had blood brushed onto them using a hyssop plant, and this was the basis of Israel's salvation.    

The "clean person" and "they" of :17 could be anyone. The red heifer cleansing differs from any other Mosaic ritual in that it didn't need to be administered by priests. This speaks of how the Lord's work for us, and the sovereign forgiveness of God, is ministered directly and without any priesthood as an interface. This is some kind of a foil to the recent declaration of Aaron and the Levites as God's method of priesthood (Num. 16,17). Ultimate forgiveness and total pardon was not actually achieved through them.

Num 19:19 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 shall be clean at evening-
The importance of self examination at the breaking of bread is indirectly hinted at in Jn. 13:10: “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet". This is surely a reference to how Num. 19:19 prescribed that a Levite was required to take a plunge bath in order to be clean. The Lord is therefore saying that all His people, when they partake of His feast, are to present themselves as cleansed Levites. He understood His people as all being part of a priesthood. Additionally, we need to bear in mind that the Lord spoke those words just before the breaking of bread, in response to how Peter did not want to participate in the Lord’s meal if it meant the Lord washing him. Surely the Lord was saying that baptism is a one time event- he has been thus bathed does not need to wash again, or be re-baptized. But, he does need to periodically wash his feet, which I would take to be a reference to the breaking of bread which Peter seemed to want to avoid. Thus whilst forgiveness is not mystically mediated through the bread and wine, there is all the same a very distinct connection between the memorial meeting and forgiveness, just as there is between baptism and forgiveness. To not break bread is to walk away from that forgiveness in the blood of Jesus, just as to refuse baptism is to do the same.

Num 19:20 But the man who shall be unclean, and shall not purify himself, that soul shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly, because he has defiled the sanctuary of Yahweh. The water for impurity has not been sprinkled on him: he is unclean-
This appears a very strict judgment for touching a corpse and then not having the red heifer ash water sprinkled. What if the red heifer hadn't been slain by the priest, what if the water wasn't available immediately, especially if the person was far from the sanctuary? But I have suggested on :7,11 that this is all in the specific context of the events of Num. 16,17; it was a one off requirement that those who were unclean because of those events should make use of the cleansing offered through the red heifer, or die in their sins.

Num 19:21 It shall be a perpetual statute to them. He who sprinkles the water for impurity shall wash his clothes, and he who touches the water for impurity shall be unclean until evening-
The “water of separation" granted cleansing, in prophecy of the effect of the blood of Christ (Num. 19:21). But the Hebrew for “separation" is also translated ‘uncleanness’ (Lev. 20:21; Ezra 9:11; Zech. 13:1). Touching this water for any other reason made a man unclean. Only if used in the right context did it make him clean (Num. 19:21). This is why it is described with a word which has these two meanings. Thus the RSV gives “water of impurity", the LXX ‘water of purifying’. And so it is with our contact with the work of the Lord, symbolized in the emblems. We are made unclean by it, we drink damnation to ourselves, if we don’t discern it. Only if we properly discern it are we cleansed by it. The idea of the breaking of bread becoming a place of condemnation for the unworthy is to be found in Ps. 69:22, where those who crucify Messiah afresh are warned that their table will become a snare to them, and their own sense of peace will trap them.

I have discussed on :8 why there is so much uncleanness upon the Levites and priests associated with this sacrifice. But the reference to "a statue forever" could admittedly tend against my suggestion that this was a one time sacrifice to deal with the uncleanness and sin associated with the events of Num. 16,17. But "a statute for ever" is the term used about the regular annual keeping of the Passover and other annual feasts (Ex. 12:14,17,43) so the idea may be that the gross sin of the priests in allowing the Levites and others into the sanctuary was to be remembered each year in the red heifer ritual.

Num 19:22 Whatever the unclean person touches shall be unclean; and the soul that touches it shall be unclean until evening-
I have discussed on :8 why there is so much uncleanness upon the Levites and priests associated with this sacrifice.