At the center of Israel’s life was the Lord, and this was so in their very living conditions while and camped and traveling in the wilderness, for the Lord’s tabernacle was always in the middle. Between that and Israel were the Levites (1:53; 2:17). Indeed, another name for tabernacle used here and elsewhere in Scripture is sanctuary, a holy place. Thus God’s absolute holiness was always evident among them.
In the course of events people would die, especially during the 40 years in wilderness. Whoever was around the person at death and whoever took care of the dead body became “unclean.” Everyone who had contact with the dead body was unclean for a week.
We tend to equate “unclean” with sin such as cursing God’s name, lying, etc. But the assessment of “unclean” applied to many things such as eating certain animals (Lev 11) and even childbirth (Lev 12). It is better to see this as emphasizing God’s holiness in every aspect of life (cf. Lev 11:44-47). So, as Israel lived these decades in the wilderness with the Lord’s presence in their very midst via the sanctuary and the effects of sin regularly evident with continual death, God’s holiness in the theocratic nation had to be maintained in every situation of life, even death.
God’s provision for cleansing defilement associated with death was through the ordinance of the red heifer. A perfect red heifer would be entirely burned outside the camp. Its ashes would be collected. Whenever a death occurred the heifer’s ashes would be mixed with water. A clean person would take a hyssop branch, dip it in the mixture, and sprinkle anything and anyone that had contact with a dead body twice during that week.
- The central focus of Numbers 19 is not the red heifer, but the sanctuary of the Lord, the very presence and holiness of God.
- A holy God demands a holy people. Every aspect of Israel’s life was to be characterized by holiness, from the cradle to the grave, because Israel’s God was holy and dwelt among them.
- Only God can define what is unclean and how to become clean. Defilement always comes from sinners and can only be dealt with by God. Israel’s only provision for uncleanness and sin before a holy God was from a holy God. The unclean could not make themselves clean (cf. Isa 64:6).
- Rejecting God’s gracious provision results in death. Those who remain in and refuse to partake of God’s provision for defilement receive God’s judgment of death.
- Neither church buildings nor any part of them should be called sanctuaries. There was only one sanctuary, the tabernacle/temple in OT theocratic Israel.
- The Holy Spirit indwells Christians thus demanding holiness of life. If you’re a Christian contact with a dead body or eating a hotdog does not render you unclean, but are you striving to be holy as the God who lives in you is holy? 1 Cor 6:18–20