“Heifer and Serpent Faith”
by Mark Huey
Now that the rules and guidelines for the Levitical priesthood have been widely delineated in the previous Torah readings, along with the disappointment of the spying expedition completed and the challenges to leadership by Korah and his cohorts dealt with severely—our Torah portion for this week, Chukat, commences with the inexplicable, mysterious procedure for purifying the unclean with the ashes of a red heifer (Numbers 19:1-22). For millennia, Jewish Sages and Bible scholars alike have been unable to fully comprehend just why the Lord would institute this practice—which purifies the unclean while rendering the clean unclean in the process—but nevertheless, because the instruction came from Him, we should recognize that it is something that would be done if either the Tabernacle or Temple were operational.
In some regards, this confounding ritual at least partially foreshadows a future mindboggling event when the unblemished Messiah would be crucified for the sin of fallen humanity, providing permanent atonement. Our Torah reading is notably specific, reminding the reader that being cleansed by the ashes of the heifer the statute was applicable to all people within the broad community of Israel. What this should communicate to each of us is how the work of being cleansed is undeniably something that God wants to provide for all people—be it a ritual cleansing or most importantly a spiritual cleansing:
“Now a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place, and the congregation of the sons of Israel shall keep it as water to remove impurity; it is purification from sin. The one who gathers the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening; and it shall be a perpetual statute to the sons of Israel and to the alien who sojourns among them. The one who touches the corpse of any person shall be unclean for seven days…Then 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 from uncleanness, and he shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and shall be clean by evening. But the man who is unclean and does not purify himself from uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly, because he has defiled the sanctuary of the LORD; the water for impurity has not been sprinkled on him, he is unclean. So it shall be a perpetual statute for them. And he who sprinkles the water for impurity shall wash his clothes, and he who touches the water for impurity shall be unclean until evening. Furthermore, anything that the unclean person touches shall be unclean; and the person who touches it shall be unclean until evening” (Numbers 19:9-11, 19-22).
After the ritual with the red heifer is explained, our reading actually fasts forward some thirty-eight years, to when the whole congregation is bivouacked in the wilderness of Zin. This is where a number of generational transitions take place, as Moses was preparing the survivors of the sojourn to enter into the Promised Land. At this point in the journey, though, Miriam died. The rock that followed the Israelites, sustaining the people and their herds with water, which had followed them since Horeb (Exodus 17:6; cf. 1 Corinthians 10:4, was no longer spewing forth water. This dilemma naturally evoked a response from the younger generation, which was not too dissimilar from how their parents and grandparents reacted when initially departing from Egypt (Exodus 17). However, in this case, one finds that the aged Moses did not adhere to the explicit instructions of the Lord in terms of the people receiving water:
“Then the sons of Israel, the whole congregation, came to the wilderness of Zin in the first month; and the people stayed at Kadesh. Now Miriam died there and was buried there. There was no water for the congregation, and they assembled themselves against Moses and Aaron. The people thus contended with Moses and spoke, saying, ‘If only we had perished when our brothers perished before the LORD! Why then have you brought the LORD’s assembly into this wilderness, for us and our beasts to die here? Why have you made us come up from Egypt, to bring us in to this wretched place? It is not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, nor is there water to drink.’ Then Moses and Aaron came in from the presence of the assembly to the doorway of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. Then the glory of the LORD appeared to them; and the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Take the rod; and you and your brother Aaron assemble the congregation and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it may yield its water. You shall thus bring forth water for them out of the rock and let the congregation and their beasts drink.’ So Moses took the rod from before the LORD, just as He had commanded him; and Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly before the rock. And he said to them, ‘Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?’ Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation and their beasts drank. But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.’ Those were the waters of Meribah, because the sons of Israel contended with the LORD, and He proved Himself holy among them” (Numbers 20:1-13).
While Moses and Aaron once again fell on their faces, imploring the Lord for guidance on how to handle not only the complaints of the grumblers—but most critically the need for water—Moses’ frustration with the circumstances generated a reaction that did not conform with the Almighty’s command to simply take the rod of authority from the Tabernacle, and speak to the rock to bring forth water. Instead, Moses struck the rock twice with the rod, and in doing so, disobeyed the Lord and sealed both his and his brother’s fate, from leading the assembly into the Promised Land. This lack of obedience to the instruction of the Lord has in time since been a most severe warning to all of those called to be in leadership of God’s people. One would think that after nearly forty years of serving the Lord and following His instructions, someone of Moses’ stature who was given such great responsibility, would not succumb to the impetuous actions of the flesh. However, Moses struck the rock twice, and the consequence of his actions resulted in being denied the blessing of entering into the Promised Land—despite some future pleadings seeking the Lord to reverse His decision (Deuteronomy 3:23-27).
At the waters began to flow again, the attempt to make the final push toward Canaan encountered a number of impediments, because of the presence of other people groups residing in the territory along the designated route to the Promised Land. After all, transporting hundreds of thousands of people and their livestock through the area was naturally going to require a significant amount of provision. Immediately, the fledgling nation of Israel was about to receive a foretaste of the fact that their neighbors were not about to just welcome them with open arms. First, their kindred among the descendants of Esau rejected Moses’ request for passage through their territory, despite the assurance that Israel would not even drink any of their scarce water resources:
“From Kadesh Moses then sent messengers to the king of Edom: ‘Thus your brother Israel has said, “You know all the hardship that has befallen us; that our fathers went down to Egypt, and we stayed in Egypt a long time, and the Egyptians treated us and our fathers badly. But when we cried out to the LORD, He heard our voice and sent an angel and brought us out from Egypt; now behold, we are at Kadesh, a town on the edge of your territory. Please let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or through vineyard; we will not even drink water from a well. We will go along the king’s highway, not turning to the right or left, until we pass through your territory.”’ Edom, however, said to him, ‘You shall not pass through us, or I will come out with the sword against you.’ Again, the sons of Israel said to him, ‘We will go up by the highway, and if I and my livestock do drink any of your water, then I will pay its price. Let me only pass through on my feet, nothing else.’ But he said, ‘You shall not pass through.’ And Edom came out against him with a heavy force and with a strong hand. Thus Edom refused to allow Israel to pass through his territory; so Israel turned away from him” (Numbers 20:14-21).
Moses and Aaron certainly contemplated the rejection of their request to the Edomites, and our Torah reading gives us some transitional information communicated while the people assembled near Mount Hor. Aaron would die, and his priestly responsibilities would be transferred to his son Eleazar—literally as the garments of the high priest were taken off of Aaron and placed onto Eleazar. In a seemingly seamless procedure, Eleazar, who was raised serving and following his father Aaron’s lead, was given the representative clothing of the high priest, so that the congregation would know that the transfer of authority had been completed to the next generation. In a fitting tribute to the loss of a useful servant of the Most High, the congregation mourned the loss of Aaron for thirty days, establishing a meaningful precedence for future generations to consider when those who have served them ably pass away:
“Now when they set out from Kadesh, the sons of Israel, the whole congregation, came to Mount Hor. Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron at Mount Hor by the border of the land of Edom, saying, ‘Aaron will be gathered to his people; for he shall not enter the land which I have given to the sons of Israel, because you rebelled against My command at the waters of Meribah. Take Aaron and his son Eleazar and bring them up to Mount Hor; and strip Aaron of his garments and put them on his son Eleazar. So Aaron will be gathered to his people, and will die there.’ So Moses did just as the LORD had commanded, and they went up to Mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation. After Moses had stripped Aaron of his garments and put them on his son Eleazar, Aaron died there on the mountain top. Then Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain. When all the congregation saw that Aaron had died, all the house of Israel wept for Aaron thirty days” (Numbers 20:22-29).
With the disappointment of not being able to travel through Edom realized, Moses decided that another route through the Negev was the way to proceed. As noted earlier, though, these other neighbors were not necessarily welcoming the Israelites, but instead were going out to battle with them. However, this time the Lord heard the pleas of His people, and with His blessing, the Israelites overcame the Canaanites who impeded their progress:
“When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim, then he fought against Israel and took some of them captive. So Israel made a vow to the LORD and said, ‘If You will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.’ The LORD heard the voice of Israel and delivered up the Canaanites; then they utterly destroyed them and their cities. Thus the name of the place was called Hormah” (Numbers 21:1-3).
When the journey recommenced around Edom, there was a chronic return to complaining about a lack of food and water, which prompted the Lord to send serpents into the camp to severely chastise the recalcitrant Israelites. Once again in his intermediary capacity, Moses interceded for the people. The Lord directed him to fashion a bronze serpent, which was to be lifted up and made visible by all in the camp. All the people had to do was to gaze upon this bronze serpent standard, with the belief that it would heal them from the sting of the serpents:
“Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient because of the journey. The people spoke against God and Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food.’ The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. So the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you; intercede with the LORD, that He may remove the serpents from us.’ And Moses interceded for the people. Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.’ And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived” (Numbers 21:4-9).
Centuries later, in His encounter with Nicodemus, Yeshua the Messiah Himself would describe how this act of Moses, in the Ancient Israelites’ desert sojourn, was a significant foreshadowing of the need for all people to look to Him. Yeshua would be lifted up as a sacrifice for human sin, which all being saved would need to recognize in order to be born from above:
“Yeshua answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?’ Yeshua answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, “You must be born again.” The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can these things be?’ Yeshua answered and said to him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:3-16).
Despite the Lord’s issues with the complaining Israelites, He still loved them and was committed to fulfilling His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as their sojourn continued, with yet some more neighbors to contend with in order to enter into the Promised Land. The Amorites were given the same assurances as the Edomites regarding foraging from fields and vineyards and consuming water from their wells, but without any logical alternatives, Moses decided to route the Israelite entourage through the Amorite territory. In this case, the favor of the Lord was with Israel, and when the battles concluded, Israel had taken possession of land from the Arnon to the Jabbok Rivers, as well as their cities and villages:
“Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon, king of the Amorites, saying, ‘Let me pass through your land. We will not turn off into field or vineyard; we will not drink water from wells. We will go by the king’s highway until we have passed through your border.’ But Sihon would not permit Israel to pass through his border. So Sihon gathered all his people and went out against Israel in the wilderness, and came to Jahaz and fought against Israel. Then Israel struck him with the edge of the sword, and took possession of his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, as far as the sons of Ammon; for the border of the sons of Ammon was Jazer. Israel took all these cities and Israel lived in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all her villages. For Heshbon was the city of Sihon, king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab and had taken all his land out of his hand, as far as the Arnon. Therefore those who use proverbs say, ‘Come to Heshbon! Let it be built! So let the city of Sihon be established. For a fire went forth from Heshbon, a flame from the town of Sihon; it devoured Ar of Moab, the dominant heights of the Arnon. Woe to you, O Moab! You are ruined, O people of Chemosh! He has given his sons as fugitives, And his daughters into captivity, to an Amorite king, Sihon. But we have cast them down, Heshbon is ruined as far as Dibon, then we have laid waste even to Nophah, which reaches to Medeba.’ Thus Israel lived in the land of the Amorites. Moses sent to spy out Jazer, and they captured its villages and dispossessed the Amorites who were there. Then they turned and went up by the way of Bashan, and Og the king of Bashan went out with all his people, for battle at Edrei. But the LORD said to Moses, ‘Do not fear him, for I have given him into your hand, and all his people and his land; and you shall do to him as you did to Sihon, king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon.’ So they killed him and his sons and all his people, until there was no remnant left him; and they possessed his land” (Numbers 21:21-35).
After the victories were secured as Chukat comes to a close, the Israelites were encamped on the plains of Moab poised by the Jordan River, overlooking Jericho and prepared for entry into Canaan:
“Then the sons of Israel journeyed, and camped in the plains of Moab beyond the Jordan opposite Jericho” (Numbers 22:1).
Now it would just be a matter of preparing the Israelites for a final push into Canaan, with some substantial obstacles like the fortified city of Jericho impeding their progress. There were still some challenges to come from the Moabites, which will be addressed in further reading, but the next generation of people (often called the “Joshua generation”) which was on the precipice of occupying the Promised Land, was being primed for the coming invasion. Naturally, they had the common needs such as access to water and food to sustain them continually, which became a concern—but they had just witnessed and participated in the final thrust defeating the Amorites, and were enjoying the spoils of their triumph. They had a new high priest, without the presence of previously recognized leaders like Miriam and Aaron around—but the emergence of Joshua and Caleb as elder leaders and fearless warriors, perhaps gave the Israelites some confidence, as the Jordan River was all that separated them from their destiny.
All who survived the attack of the serpents had to have realized that God’s means of deliverance was punctuated by faith in what Moses had instructed them to do. The Tabernacle was in full operation, and the ashes of the red heifer were still performing the cleansing of the people (perhaps as the final corpses of the generation not permitted to enter into Canaan were being buried). After nearly forty years, Moses, despite his indiscretion in striking the rock, was still among them. The anticipation of finally settling in the Promised Land, no doubt, offered thoughts of completion, as the community of Israel could finally settle down.
Thinking about what Chukat might communicate to modern-day Believers in the Messiah of Israel, the concept of living by faith and in what the Lord has instructed His people to do, does not come naturally. In many ways, for those living today—even with the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit—there can still be a tendency to follow after ways of the flesh. Not following the dictates of one’s fallen humanity will be a battle that becomes even more apparent as we continue our reading of the Torah.