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Parashat Chukat - Quick Summary

Weekly Torah Reading

Parashat Chukat ("Decree of")

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Brit Chadashah


Numbers 19:1-22:1

Judges 11:1-33

Hebrews 9:11-28;
John 3:10-21

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Torah Reading Snapshot:

Last week's Torah (parashat Korach) established the authority of Moses (not Reuben) as the leader of Israel, and the authority of Aaron (not the other sons of Kehat) as God's chosen priestly line. The Israelites (i.e., laymen) were warned to keep their distance from the priestly duties and to allow the appointed representative of the LORD intercede on their behalf.

This week's parashah begins with the unusual ritual law
(i.e., chukat hatorah: חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה) of the Red Heifer:

Numbers 19:1-2 (BHS)

And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying, This is the ordinance of the law which the LORD hath commanded, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke. (Numbers 19:1-2)

The Red Heifer (Parah Adumah)

[Note: According to Jewish tradition, these instructions were initially given to Moses in the second year of the Exodus, on Nisan 1, the day the mishkan (tabernacle) was first erected, but appear at this point in the narrative because of the need to purify the people after Miriam's death mentioned in the following chapter.]

Moses is given the unusual ritual law (chukat hatorah) of the Red Heifer (parah adumah), whose ashes purify those contaminated by contact with death. This ritual is considered chok within the Jewish tradition, meaning that it makes no rational sense. In fact, the Talmud states that of all the taryag mitzvot (613 commandments), this is the only one that King Solomon could not fathom, since this sacrifice is the most paradoxical of all the sacrifices found in the Torah. However, as we will see, the symbolism of the parah adumah is a clear foreshadowing of the sacrifice of the Mashiach Yeshua to deliver us from death.

The parah adumah had to be a perfect specimen that was completely red, "without blemish, in which there is no defect (mum)." The rabbis interpreted "without blemish" as referring to the color, that is, without having so much as a single white or black hair.  This is the only sacrifice in the Torah where the color of the animal is explicitly required. Moreover, the parah adumah was never to have had a yoke upon it, meaning that it must never have been used for any profane purposes.

Unlike all other sacrifices offered at the mizbeach (altar at the Mishkan), the parah adumah was taken outside the camp and there slaughtered before the priest (in this case, Elazar, Aaron's son), who then took some of its blood and sprinkled it seven times before the Mishkan (thereby designating it as a purification offering). [During the Second Temple period, the High Priest performed this ceremony facing the Temple while atop the Mount of Olives.] Then the red heifer would be burned in its entirety: its hide, flesh, blood, and even dung were to be burned (unlike other Levitical sacrifices). Unlike other offerings, all of the blood of the sacrifice was to be burned in the fire.

Hyssop, scarlet yarn, and a cedar stick would then be thrown upon the burning parah adumah, which were the same items used to cleanse from tzara'at (skin disease). These items, along with the blood of the red heifer, were therefore assimilated into the ashes of the sacrifice, which were then gathered and mixed with water to create what was called the "waters of separation" (i.e., mei niddah: מֵי נִדָּה) for the Israelite community. Note that the word "separation" (niddah) refers to menstrual impurity and harkens to Zechariah 13:1: "On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and from niddah."

Anyone (or anything) that came into contact with a corpse (the embodiment of sin and death) was required to be purified using the mei niddah. The purification procedure took seven days, using stalks of hyssop dipped into the water and shaken over the ritually defiled person on the third day and then again on the seventh day. After the second sprinkling, the defiled person was immersed in a mikvah (ritual bath) and would be declared clean (tahor) the following evening.

The Uniqueness of the Sacrifice

The Parah Adumah sacrifice was entirely unique, for the following reasons:

  1. It was the only sacrifice that specifically required an animal of a particular color. This animal was extremely rare and unique of its kind (in fact, Maimonides wrote, "Nine Parot Adumot were prepared from the time the Commandment was given until the destruction of the Second Temple. Moses our Teacher prepared one, Ezra prepared one and seven more were prepared until the Destruction of the Temple. The tenth will prepared by the Mashiach." (We would say "was prepared" by the Mashiach Yeshua, blessed be He.)
  2. It was the only sacrifice where all the rituals were carried out outside of the camp (and later, outside the Temple precincts). That is, the "blood applications" of this sacrifice occurred in a location apart from the altar (the Talmud recounts that the High Priest performed the blood applications of the Red Heifer while gazing at the Temple and at the Holy of Holies from a mountain opposite the Temple mount).
  3. It was the only sacrifice that ritually contaminated the priest who offered it, but made the one who was sprinkled by it clean.
  4. It was the only sacrifice where the ashes were preserved and used (other sacrifices required the ashes be disposed outside of the camp).

According to Jewish tradition, this sacrifice was to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf, though the Torah itself does not make this association.  The LORD Yeshua, our Mashiach, is the perfect fulfillment of the Parah Adumah, since He was completely without sin or defect (2 Cor 5:21; John 8:46); He was sacrificed outside the camp (Heb 13:13); He made Himself sin for us (2 Cor 5:21); His sprinkling makes us clean (1 Pet 1:2; Heb 12:24; Rev 1:5); and the "water of separation" that His sacrifice created is the means by which we are made clean from the impurity of sin (Eph 5:25-6; Heb 10:22).

Moses' Sin at Kadesh

We now fast-forward 38 years later when the people of Israel arrived in the wilderness of Tzin. Moses' sister Miriam died (on Nisan 10) and was buried.

According to Jewish tradition, there were three regularly occurring miracles given to Israel as they wandered in the wilderness:

  1. Water from the Well of Miriam - A rock that followed the camp of Israel during their wanderings that miraculously provided water for the people.
  2. Clouds of glory for protection - The pillar of cloud by day and fire by night miraculously protected the people from predators in the wilderness.
  3. Manna from heaven - Heavenly food miraculously provided for Israel during their wandering in the wilderness.

According to midrash, when Miriam died, the Jewish people did not properly grieve for her  and therefore the LORD caused the "Well of Miriam" to dry up. It was shortly thereafter that the Israelites gathered to complain to Moses and Aaron because of a lack of water. This was a moment of crisis for Israel, since without water the nation would surely die in the wilderness (though of course the LORD was there to provide for the people -- if they would trust in Him).

Moses and Aaron went into the Mishkan and prayed to the LORD. The LORD then instructed Moses to take his staff (as a sign of authority) and to speak to the rock (of Miriam) to yield its water.

    "Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, "Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?"

It is thought by some commentators that this use of the pronoun "we" was the fateful error of Moses (not the striking of the rock with the staff). God's judgment was that Moses did not trust Him enough to "sanctify" Him in the presence of all the people, by which it is suggested that Moses' arrogance was impossible to overlook, since it was performed publicly. Moses and Aaron would therefore die in the wilderness, just as the first generation of Israelites who had failed to trust in the LORD did.

However, Moses directly disobeyed the command of the Lord: even after God explicitly told Moses to speak to the Rock, he chose to strike it.  Moses appeared to act under his own authority as well: "shall we bring water for you out of this rock?"  Prophetically, however, Moses earlier struck the Rock in order to provide water for the people (Ex. 17:5-7), and this was intended as a  picture of Him who would be stricken for us (Isa. 53:4 and 1 Cor. 10:4). The second striking of the Rock suggested that Mashiach would need to be stricken a second time in order to provide the needs of the people (John 7:37-39).

No!  The Rock that was once smitten for the people was now to be spoken to as the Living Rock (1 Cor. 10:4). Moses conveyed the wrong message, suggesting that the first striking had been insufficient and that something more was needed.  The price Moses (and Aaron) paid for this disobedience was severe: neither of them was allowed to enter the Promised Land.

And it is to this day: those who attempt to add to the work of the LORD by affecting works of their own righteousness will likewise be disbarred from the land of Promise.

The Death of Aaron

After this, Moses sent a delegation to the King of Edom asking for permission for Israel to pass through Eretz Canaan to the Promised Land, but was denied. Perhaps this was a result of the duplicitous actions of Jacob when he reunited with Esav years ago.

The camp of Israel then moved on to Mount Hor, near the land of Edom.  Moses called an assembly of the people and explained that Aaron was going to die. He then led Aaron and his son Elazar to the top of Mount Hor, where he removed Aaron's bigdei kehuna (High Priestly garments) and put them on his son Elazar. Like Moses, Aaron was denied entry to the Promised Land because he sinned at Meribah.  The nation mourned for Aaron for 30 days (avelut).

Upon the death of Aaron, the clouds of glory for protection of Israel were said to have lifted, exposing the children of Israel to peril from various predators in the desert.

War with Canaanites

While Israel was still in a state of mourning, a Canaanite king named Arad decided the time was right to attack Israel. His campaign was initially successful, and his army even took some Israelites captives. However, Israel made neder l'adonai (a vow to the LORD) and promised to put the enemy under a cherem ban (designating their cities and plunder to complete destruction). Their counterattack was successful, and Arad, his armies, and all of his cities were completely annihilated.

The Copper Snake (Nechash Nechoshet)

Upon leaving Mount Hor to go around the land of Edom, the people grew impatient and another rebellion brewed. This time the people murmured not only against Moses, but against the LORD Himself. Consequently, the LORD sent "burning serpents" (haNechashim haseraphim) that bit the people and many Israelites died (the verb saraf means to burn). The people confessed their sin and appealed to Moses for help, who then interceded on their behalf.

The LORD instructed Moses to make a figure of a snake (Nechash Nechoshet) and mount it on a pole so that "everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live."

Nechash Nechoshet

The Mashiach Yeshua referred to this episode when He spoke to Nicodemus about the way of salvation. "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" (John 3:14-15). Humanity as a whole has been "bitten by the snake" and needs to be delivered from its venom. Just as the image made in the likeness of the destroying snake was lifted up for Israel's healing, so the One made in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom 8:3) was to be lifted up as the Healer of the world.

[Later, King Hezekiah destroyed the copper snake (called Nechustan in 2 Kings 18:4), since apparently it had been used for idolatrous purposes -  a topic that could easily be developed into a derash about the worship of "crucifixes" or other man-made tokens that pertain to the sacrifice of Yeshua our LORD.]

The parashah continues with details about the route through the Transjordan, including a song the Israelites sang about a miraculous well of water given to them in the desert.

War against Sichon, king of the Amorites

After this, Moses sent a delegation to Sichon (Sihon) King of the Emorim (Amorites) asking for permission for Israel to pass through to the Promised Land, but was denied.  According to midrash, Sichon was one of the nephillim who had (somehow) survived the great mabul (flood) of Noach's time. Sichon arrayed his army and fought Israel at Yahaz but was defeated, and Israel took possession of the land to the border of the Ammonites. Note again that Jewish midrash (or perhaps hagiolatry) states that Moses asked the LORD have the sun stand still to complete the route of the enemy, though of course the text itself does not say this.

War against Og, king of Bashan

Sichon had a half-brother named Og, the king of Bashan and one of the nephillim. When Og heard about Sichon's death, he assembled his army to avenge his brother.

Jewish midrash states that Moses was afraid to go to war with Og because Og was believed to be over 500 years old with special powers. Moreover, Og was said to have once helped Abraham when Lot was captured and even was even circumcised by Abraham himself! 

The LORD reassured Moses to attack Og, however, and the midrash says that Moses himself killed Og during the battle. So Israel completely destroyed Og, his armies and his people and took possession of the land of Bashan.

After these two climactic battles, Israel journeyed to the wastelands of Moav (Moab), poised to cross the Jordan and capture Jericho.

Haftarah Reading Snapshot:

The last section of Chukat (i.e., Numbers 21) related how the king of Bashan and the king of Ammon tried to prevent the Jewish people from passing through their borders to get to the promised land. Both kings decided to wage war against Israelites - and both kings lost.  The Israelites then settled in their vanquished territories.

The Haftarah for Chukat fast forwards 300 years later, when the king of Ammon demanded that Israel return to him the territories that were conquered - and threatened war if the land was not given back. Yiftach ("Jephthah") was the (rejected) firstborn son of Gilead and a concubine, who had become renowned for his military prowess in the place of his exile (the land of Tov). The leaders of Gilead sought Yiftach's help and asked him to deliver them from the threat of the Ammonites. Yiftach agreed on the condition that if he was successful, he would be restored as the firstborn of Gilead, and thus the tribal leader.

Yiftach then made a rash vow to the LORD, saying: "If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD's, and I will offer up for a burnt offering."

After victoriously returning from his battle with the Ammonites, Yiftach was dismayed to see his own daughter come out of his house to meet him, since this meant that he would be forced to sacrifice her as a burnt offering as he had vowed to the LORD (some commentators believe that she was merely consigned to perpetual virginity, though this reading is unlikely.)

As Kohelet said, "Better not to vow at all than to vow and not fulfill" (Kohelet 5:4). The LORD Yeshua taught us, "Do not take an oath at all... (Matt 5:34-36). Let us take heed!

Brit Chadashah Snapshot:

The Brit Chadashah readings both show how Yeshua the Mashiach is the fulfillment of the "types and shadows" of the Torah (Hebrews 10:1-2).

In the reading from the book of Hebrews, Yeshua's sacrifice is shown to be superior to the Parah Adumah sacrifice: "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 will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God."

Son of Man lifted up

In the reading from John's gospel, Yeshua explained to Nicodemus the way of salvation. "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" (John 3:14-15). Humanity as a whole has been "bitten by the snake" and needs to be delivered from its venom. We are all perishing with a fatal condition before the LORD.

But just as the image made in the likeness of the destroying snake was lifted up for Israel's healing, so the One made in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom 8:3) was to be lifted up as the Healer of the world. The LORD Yeshua became our "serpent" and represented God's judgment upon our sinful condition. Paradoxically, by looking to Him as the One who bears our judgment before the LORD, we are delivered from the judgment that is rightly our own. We are forgiven and healed on account of the LORD Yeshua's willingness to become the One who is "smitten of God and afflicted" (Isaiah 53). Praise God Almighty!


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