Numbers 19:1-10 prescribes a unique purification offering (so-called “sin offering”). It is performed outside the Israelite camp, a reddish cow is entirely burned, and its ashes are stored for future use in purifying individuals from severe physical ritual impurity incurred by contact with or proximity to (under the same roof) dead humans (cf. vv. 11-22). If it were not for the priest sprinkling blood toward the sanctuary (v. 4) and the explicit statement that it is a purification offering (v. 9), we could have difficulty knowing that the ritual is even a sacrifice (= offering) to God.
The aspect of the ritual that has most puzzled interpreters for more than a millennium is the fact that its participants become impure, but impure persons to whom the hydrated ashes are subsequently applied become pure. It is as though the impurity travels backwards in time from impure individuals to the ashes, and then to the cow from which they derive, which in turn conveys impurity to those who contact it (including its blood). This time warp is unique in the Israelite ritual system. Everywhere else, rituals are subsequent to the evils they remedy.
It appears that the unusual procedure for dealing with corpse contamination is designed to solve a series of problems (on this ritual and its meaning for us, see Roy Gane, Leviticus, Numbers [NIV Application Commentary; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004], 658-667). First, the procedure treated a very serious physical ritual impurity. Hyam Maccoby has convincingly shown that the common denominator among such symbolic impurities (cf. Lev. 12-15), which were to be kept away from the holy sphere centered at the sanctuary, was “the birth-death cycle that comprises mortality” (Ritual and Morality: The Ritual Purity System and its Place in Judaism [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999], 49; see further Gane, Leviticus, Numbers, 224-227). This makes sense because God, whose Shekinah Presence resided at the sanctuary, is the source of life, love, and purity. Sin = unlove is antagonistic to him and results in death/mortality (Rom. 6:23) because “love is the only basis on which intelligent beings with free choice can live in harmony and not destroy each other” (Roy Gane, Altar Call [Berrien Springs, MI: Diadem, 1999], 88). Corpse impurity had an obvious and direct connection with death, so its impurity was virulent and so required a major ritual remedy.
Second, the reddish cow ritual eliminated the need for a costly sacrifice every time someone died, avoiding potential hardship to families already suffering loss. Impurity from human death was unavoidable because the dead had to be buried, but for individuals its remedy was quick, easy, and inexpensive: just a pinch of reddish cow ashes mixed with “living water” (Num. 19:17), i.e., fresh water from a flowing source. The reddish color of the cow, along with red yarn and cedar wood (which can also be reddish) emphasized the function of the ash water: it was equivalent to (red) blood of a purification offering, which symbolically absorbed and carried evil (Lev. 6:27 [Heb. v. 20]; cf. Gane, Leviticus, Numbers, pp. 148-150). Because the remedy was easy, people could tend to take it lightly, but it was important and mandatory to avoid defilement of God’s sanctuary even from a distance, so neglecting it resulted in the penalty of “cutting off” (cutting off the person’s line of descendants and/or denial of an afterlife; Num. 19:13, 20; cf. Lev. 20:3).
Third, producing a supply of such ashes for the entire community to use on many occasions required a powerful ritual. Other purification offerings for individual commoners called for no more than female flock animals (goats or sheep; e.g., Lev. 4:28, 32; 14:10, 19). But the victim for corpse contamination was the largest and most costly female sacrificeable animal: a cow.
By the way, like all Israelite sacrificial animals, female victims represented Christ (cf. Jn 1:29), vaporizing the notion that a female could not represent him. It is true that priests were restricted to a small group of males (Aaron and Sons). However, there are practical reasons for that (internal onset of female menstrual impurity could jeopardize sancta, need for military function to guard the sanctuary, and God working with existing patriarchal culture rather than engaging in social engineering), which do not establish timeless principles for Christian ministry, which serves the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet. 2:9). Christians have no elite mediatorial priesthood aside from that of Christ in heaven (cf. Heb. 4:14-16).
Fourth, other purification offerings transferred existing impurities from those who owned and offered them (e.g., Lev. 12:7). The sequence worked forward in time from “need” (impurity) to “provision” (ritual remedy). Because of the connection between the offer and the victim, the impurities of the offerer were already in the animal and were carried through its blood (Lev. 6:27) to the sanctuary, from which they were removed on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:16, 19). Ash water for corpse defilement, on the other hand, would remove future impurities from persons who had no involvement or contact with the reddish cow. So, unlike purification offering blood, the ash water was not already carrying impurity. When this “water of purification” touched the impure person, it absorbed his/her impurity. This action had consequences within the overall ritual process from “need” to “provision,” but in this case the process worked backwards in time because the reddish cow sacrifice made provision before the need occurred. Therefore, the contaminated ash water conveyed the impurity back to the pure person who applied it (Num. 19:21) and to the reddish cow, from which the ashes had come, thereby defiling those involved in sacrificing and storing it (vv. 7-8, 10).
Fifth, the massive flow of many severe impurities back to the reddish cow made it so polluted that it could not be offered at the sanctuary, or even in the camp containing the sanctuary (cf. Num. 5), without jeopardizing its sanctity. The animal had to be offered outside the camp.
We have found that the bizarre reddish cow ritual makes good sense once its logical is understood. But what can 21st-century Christians learn from it? As mentioned earlier, like all other sacrificial animals in the Israelite ritual system, the reddish cow represented Christ. He not only died to save people from evils that had already occurred; his once-for-all sacrifice (Heb. 9:28) also made provision to remedy future evils, just as the reddish cow made provision for the future. His sacrifice benefits us when we allow its transformational grace to be applied to our lives through faith (Heb. 9:11-14—referring to the reddish cow; cf. Jn 3; Titus 3:4-7), but to reject this provision is to reject God and the salvation that he freely offers (cf. Num. 19:13, 20).
The reddish cow procedure purified people from physical ritual impurities, which were not violations of God’s law that we call “sins.” Thus, the NRSV correctly understands the end of Numbers 19:9 to label the burning of the red heifer as “a purification offering” (cf. NJPS “for cleansing”). However, KJV, RSV, NKJV, NASB, NAS95, and NIV mistranslate by rendering “purification/purifying from/for sin.” By confusing physical ritual impurities, which could be incurred involuntarily (e.g., menstruation; nocturnal emission), with commission of sins, which always involves some kind of choice, some have supported their mistaken notion that we sin automatically all the time.
It is true that Christ’s sacrifice saves us both from our sinful actions/thoughts and also from our state of sin, which includes our mortality and the evil propensities that arise from our depraved physical nature. Jesus came not just to forgive us, but to give us eternal life (Jn 3:16). While we must recognize the distinction between moral faults and physical ritual impurities, provision through the reddish cow teaches us about Christ’s advance provision for all kinds of evils. On the cross in/about 31 A.D., Christ became sin (2 Cor. 5:21) for me, even though my mortality and my sins that he bore didn’t exist until 1955.
For people living after the cross, the reddish cow ritual encapsulates a glorious Gospel assurance! Provision was already made for us at the cross (2 Cor. 5:19; Heb. 9:12), and all we need to do is to accept it (2 Cor. 5:20). The price to us is free (cf. Isa. 55:1), even though the cost to God was horrific.