The Red Heifer Law: What? Why?

There are some obscure and difficult sections of the Old Testament.  One example is Numbers 18-19, where we are given quite a few details about the duties of the priests and the Levites who served the priests.  In those chapters we also read about a purification law concerning the defilement that a dead body brings: it’s been called the “red heifer law!”

Some people read texts like these and it makes them think (or say) that the OT is irrelevant, sub-Christian, dated, and too obscure to be of any use.  Others dismiss the entire OT because of texts like these.  In light of this criticism, I like how Ronald Allen explained Numbers 18-19 in his commentary.  He asks – then answers – the question: “What is in these chapters for me?”

  1. The reader of Scripture needs to have general knowledge about the major institutions of the biblical period just for Scripture to make sense.
  2. Our understanding of the true worship of God begins with the sense that he controls and directs true worship; who the priests are and how they function are first his concerns.  This means that worship is not a game where we may make up the rules as we play.
  3. A general knowledge of the work of the priests in the Hebrew Bible gives many insights to the modern reader as to the interests of God in our own worship.  Often we think of worship in terms of what we like and appreciate.  This misses the mark; worship is principally for God’s pleasure.
  4. A general knowledge of the work of priests in the time of Hebrew worship gives the Christian reader significant insights into the priestly work of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The book of Hebrews has an intense priestly orientation in its presentation of the Lord Jesus Christ, priest of God in the manner of Melchizedek.
  5. In contrast with the highly regulated, highly structured patterns demanded of the priests in the Hebrew economy, the believer in the Lord Jesus Christ today has a direct access to God through the Savior that is nearly unbelievable.  We are all priests; we can come near the presence of the Lord without an intermediary.  Yet our privilege as believer-priests can only really be appreciated against the background of priests in the biblical period.

These are some good points: even the obscure and harder texts in the OT serve God’s purpose to instruct, inform, and give us a preview of the person and work of our Savior, Jesus, the great and final High Priest!

Ronald Allen, Numbers in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 850.

Shane Lems

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