Parashat Chukat - June 1st

חקת Chukat

Numbers 19.1—22.1

Numbers 19.1-10: The rabbis found the ceremony of the red heifer to be so difficult to understand that they said even King Solomon was not able to understand it: “This is the rule of the Torah. Rabbi Itzhak said, ‘I tried all this with wisdom; I said, “I will become wise,” but it was beyond me.’ Solomon said, ‘I have looked into every part of the Torah, including this parashah of the heifer. I looked at it closely, studied, researched, and questioned it, thinking I would become wise, but it was beyond me.’” (Yalkut Shimoni, Parashat Chukat 247)

Yet the mystery can be solved by looking to the One who holds the keys to unlock all mysteries. “But we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (1 Corinthians 2.7-8)

In the Torah, death is considered the ultimate source of defilement and is also the means of release from that defilement. In the same way that the antidote for a poisonous snake bite is made from the venom of the specific species of snake, the mixture of water and the ashes of the burned red heifer were able to wash away defilement. However, the strangeness of the ritual was that everyone who had a part in the preparation of this formula was rendered unclean by virtue of his participation in the process. The man who slaughtered the heifer, the priest who sprinkled its blood, the man who burned the carcass and the one who gathered up the ashes were rendered unclean. Nevertheless, the outcome of what they did made possible the cleansing of others (and themselves) and the effecting of the purposes of God.

This great mystery points us to the even greater mystery of the death of Jesus the Messiah. All those who were involved in that process were also defiled; those who falsely accused him, those who judged him wrongly, those who gave him over to the Romans, those who beat him and mocked him, those who did the crucifying, and all of us whose sin made his death necessary. Whatever our part in the process has made us guilty and unclean, but the miracle is that the end result is the means by which we are cleansed. Through Messiah’s death and resurrection, the defilement of death is vanquished.

[MM/rp]

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Numbers 19.9: “And a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place.”

Because the treatment of the red heifer involves contact with the dead body of the animal, everyone becomes ritually impure or “unclean.” “A man who is clean” is a person who has not been involved until that point, and “a clean place” means a place where there has been no dead body. When the Messiah died, his body was taken outside the city by a man who had been out of the picture until then, and it was laid in a “clean place.”

“Now there was a man named Joseph from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their purpose and deed, and he was looking for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud, and laid him in a rock-hewn tomb, where no one had ever yet been laid.” (Luke 23.50-53)

The death of the Messiah is specifically compared to the red heifer in Hebrews 9.13-14: “For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”

[BSI/rp]

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Numbers 20.12-13: “And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not believe in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.’ These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel contended with the Lord, and he showed himself holy among them.”

Moses is clearly a type for the Messiah, who would be “a prophet like me.” However, Moses was not perfect, and at Meribah he sinned. His sin was not really something small like hitting a rock instead of speaking to it. It was something far more serious, something that truly warranted the heavy punishment God gave him. Moses represented God to the people, but at Meribah his outburst of anger did not reflect the character of a holy and compassionate God who would surely give water to a thirsty people in the wilderness. Moses had failed to sanctify God before the people.

The Messiah, when he came, completely sanctified himself to God’s service, and in so doing, he also consecrated those who would come to God through him. “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work which you gave me to do. . . . For their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in the truth.” (John 17.4, 19). Where Moses disobeyed, the Messiah was completely obedient. “Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me: I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.’” (Psalms 40.7-8). “Being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2.8).

Messiah Jesus truly sanctified God in his life and in his death. He was truly worthy to bring his people into the promised land.

[BSI/rp]

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Numbers 21.8-9: “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Jesus used this bronze snake as a symbol for himself in John 3.13-15: “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Rashi commented on the meaning of the bronze snake in this way: “’If a serpent bit any man, and he looked etc.’ When the one who had been bitten was not soon healed, then afterwards he would give his attention to look at it. Our teachers said that the snake could either kill or heal, but when Israel lookup upwards and submitted their hearts to their father in heaven, they were healed, and if they didn’t, they were harmed; in other words, looking at the snake meant looking to God.”

[BSI/rp]

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Haftarah: Judges 11.1-40

Shabbat Shalom!

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