Looking for the perfect red heifer
- 1 The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron.
- 2 He gave them this law:
Tell the Israelites to bring you a young cow with red hide. This heifer shouldn’t have anything wrong with it. And it should never have worn a yoke.1
- 3 Take the heifer to Eleazar the priest. Then lead the heifer outside the camp and kill it while Eleazar watches.
- 4 Eleazar should take some of the heifer’s blood and use his fingers to sprinkle it toward the front of the Meeting Tent. He should do it seven times.
- 5 With Eleazar watching, burn the entire heifer—meat, blood, and manure.
- 6 Eleazar should also throw into the fire a piece of cedar wood, some hyssop,6 and something the color of crimson.
- 7 Afterward, the priest should wash his clothes and take a bath. Then he can go back to the camp. But he will remain ritually unclean3 until evening.
- 8 The person who burns the heifer should do the same: wash his clothes, take a bath, and wait until evening to be clean again.
- 9 Next, you’ll need someone who’s ritually clean to collect the ashes of the red heifer and secure them in a ritually clean location outside the camp. Store the ashes there for use later. Israelites will add those ashes to the purification water.4 Then they’ll use the water to cleanse Israelites who have sinned.
- 10 The person who collected the ashes will need to wash his clothes, take a bath, and then wait until evening to become ritually clean again.
This law is permanent. Israelites and others living in the land with them need to observe this law.
If you touch a corpse
- 11 If you touch a corpse, you’re unclean for a week.
- 12 Wash yourself with the purification water on the third day and the seventh. If you don’t do this, you’ll remain unclean.
- 13 If you touch a dead body and you don’t cleanse yourself, you defile the worship center when you go there. And if you do that, you’re no longer an Israelite.5 Because you weren’t sprinkled with the purifying water, you’re still unclean.
When there’s corpse in the tent
- 14 Here’s the law about what to do when someone dies in a tent:
Everyone who goes in the tent when the body is there will remain ritually unclean for a week.
- 15 And every open container in the tent will become unclean.
- 16 You’ll also be unclean for seven days if you’re out in the field and you touch a corpse. It doesn’t matter if the person died of natural causes or of a sword wound. You’ll also become unclean for a week if you touch a dead human’s bone or if you touch a grave.
- 17 For cleansing, put fresh water into a jar. Then mix in some ashes from the purification offering6 sacrificed earlier.
- 18 To cleanse a tent after a person died inside, have a ritually clean person dip a hyssop branch into the purification water and sprinkle it on the tent and everything inside—people included. Sprinkle water this way on anyone who came into contact with someone who died naturally or who was killed by a sword. And do it to anyone who touched a human bone or a grave.
- 19 If you’re unclean, you’ll need a ritually clean person to sprinkle purification water on you on the third day and the seventh. Then on that seventh day, you’ll need to wash your clothes, take a bath, and wait until evening. Then you’ll be clean.
If you skip the cleansing, goodbye
- 20 If you’re ritually unclean, you’ll defile the worship center if you go there. Anyone who does that is no longer an Israelite. If you don’t get sprinkled with purification water, you’ll remain unclean.
- 21 This law is permanent. The person who sprinkles the water needs to wash his clothes. And anyone who touches the purification water will remain unclean until evening.
- 22 If you’re unclean, anything you touch will become unclean. And it will stay that way until evening. The same thing applies for anyone unclean who touches you.
People put yokes around the necks of cattle so the cattle could pull a wagon or a plow, the way farmers also used donkeys and, years later, horses.
Hyssopus officinalis is a wild shrub that grows throughout the Middle East. Leaves on the branches are about half an inch to an inch long (2-2.5 cm). Some planted hyssop as a crop to harvest twice a year, at the end of spring and the beginning of autumn. People dried and crushed the leaves to use as medicine to treat coughing, sore throat, and digestive problems.
An Israelite became ritually unclean after coming into contact with a dead person or animal. A person ritually unclean was not supposed to touch another person or go to the worship center because they ritually defiled whatever they touched. Israelites were able to get ritually clean again by following a set of procedures that included bathing, washing their clothes, getting sprinkled with “water of purification,” and waiting for a stretch of time, often seven days.
More literally, the person “should be removed from the community” or “cut off.” This is a consequence repeated throughout these early books of the Bible. It’s unclear how and by whom the offenders were removed. Perhaps they could no longer worship at the tent worship center, or they lost their rights as citizens of this emerging nation that Moses seemed to be organizing. Maybe they were executed. Or perhaps the community let God deal with the person. Scholars seem uncertain about what happened.
That’s the red heifer, verse 9.