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'And Jesus saith unto him, See thou tell no man; but go thy way, show thyself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them.'--Matthew 8:4 Festive seasons were not the only occasions which brought worshippers to Jerusalem. Every trespass and sin, every special vow and offering, and every defilement called them to the Temple. All the rites then enjoined are full of deep meaning. Selecting from them those on which the practice of the Jews at the time of Christ casts a special light, our attention is first called to a service, distinguished from the rest by its unique character.
1. The purification from the defilement of death by the ashes of the red heifer (Num 19). In the worship of the Old Testament, where everything was symbolical, that is, where spiritual realities were conveyed through outwards signs, every physical defilement would point to, and carry with it, as it were, a spiritual counterpart. But especially was this the case with reference to birth and death, which were so closely connected with sin and the second death, with redemption and the second birth. Hence, all connected with the origin of life and with death, implied defilement, and required Levitical purification. But here there was considerable difference. Passing over the minor defilements attaching to what is connected with the origin of life, the woman who had given birth to a child was Levitically unclean for forty or for eighty days, according as she had become the mother of a son or a daughter (Lev 12). After that she was to offer for her purification a lamb for a burnt-, and a turtle-dove, or young pigeon, for a sin-offering; in case of poverty, altogether only two turtle-doves or two young pigeons. We remember that the mother of Jesus availed herself of that provision for the poor, when at the same time she presented in the Temple the Royal Babe, her firstborn son (Luke 2:22).
The Offering for the First-born
On bringing her offering, she would enter the Temple through 'the gate of the first-born,' and stand in waiting at the Gate of Nicanor, from the time that the incense was kindled on the golden altar. Behind her, in the Court of the Women, was the crowd of worshippers, while she herself, at the top of the Levites' steps, which led up to the great court, would witness all that passed in the sanctuary. At last one of the officiating priests would come to her at the gate of Nicanor, and take from her hand the 'poor's offering' (so it is literally called in the Talmud), which she had brought. The morning sacrifice was needed; and but few would linger behind while the offering for her purification was actually made. She who brought it mingled prayer and thanksgiving with the service. And now the priest once more approached her, and, sprinkling her with the sacrificial blood, declared her cleansed. Her 'first-born' was next redeemed at the hand of the priest, with five shekels of silver; * two benedictions being at the same time pronounced, one for the happy event which had enriched the family with a first-born, the other for the law of redemption.
* According to the Mishnah (Beehor. viii. 7) 'of Tyrian weight' = 10 to 12 shillings of our money. The Rabbis lay it down that redemption-money was only paid for a son who was the first-born of his mother, and who was 'suitable for the priesthood,' that is, had no disqualifying bodily blemishes.
And when, with grateful heart, and solemnised in spirit, she descended those fifteen steps where the Levites were wont to sing the 'Hallel,' a sudden light of heavenly joy filled the heart of one who had long been in waiting 'for the comfort of Israel.' If the Holy Spirit had revealed it to just and devout Simeon, that he 'should not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ,' who should vanquish death, it was the same Spirit, who had led him up into the Temple 'when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for Him after the custom of the law.' Then the aged believer took the Divine Babe from His mother's into his own arms. He felt that the faithful Lord had truly fulfilled His word. Content now to depart in peace, he blessed God from the fulness of a grateful heart, for his eyes had seen His salvation--'a light to lighten the Gentiles,' and the 'glory of His people Israel.' But Joseph and Mary listened, wondering, to the words which fell from Simeon's lips.
Purification for the Dead
Such was the service of purification connected with the origin of life. Yet it was not nearly so solemn or important as that for the removal of defilement from contact with death. A stain attached indeed to the spring of life; but death, which cast its icy shadow from the gates of Paradise to those of Hades, pointed to the second death, under whose ban every one lay, and which, if unremoved, would exercise eternal sway. Hence defilement by the dead was symbolically treated as the greatest of all. It lasted seven days; it required a special kind of purification; and it extended not only to those who had touched the dead, but even to the house or tent where the body had lain, and all open vessels therein. More than that, to enter such a house; to come into contact with the smallest bone, or with a grave; * even to partake of a feast for the dead (Hosea 9:4), rendered ceremonially unclean for seven days (Num 19:11-16,18; 31:19).
* According to Jewish tradition, a dead body, however deeply buried, communicated defilement all the way up to the surface, unless indeed it were vaulted in, or vaulted over, to cut off contact with the earth above.
Nay, he who was thus defiled in turn rendered everything unclean which he touched (Num 19:22; comp. Hagg 2:13). For priests and Nazarites the law was even more stringent (Lev 21, etc; comp. Eze 44:25, etc.; Num 6:7, etc.). The former were not to defile themselves by touching any dead body, except those of their nearest kin; the high-priest was not to approach even those of his own parents.
The Six Degrees of Defilement
In general, Jewish writers distinguish six degrees, which they respectively term, according to their intensity, the 'fathers of fathers,' the 'fathers,' and the 'first,' 'second,' 'third,' and 'fourth children of defilement.' They enumerate in all twenty-nine 'fathers of defilement,' arising from various causes, and of these no less than eleven arise from some contact with a dead body. Hence also the law made here exceptional provision for purification. 'A red heifer without spot,' that is, without any white or black hair on its hide, without 'blemish, and on which never yoke came,' was to be sacrificed as a sin-offering (Num 19:9,17), and that outside the camp, not in the sanctuary, and by the son of, or by the presumptive successor to the high-priest. The blood of this sacrifice was to be sprinkled seven times with the finger, not on the altar, but towards the sanctuary; then the whole animal--skin, flesh, blood, and dung--burned, the priest casting into the midst of the burning 'cedarwood, and hyssop, and scarlet.' The ashes of this sacrifice were to be gathered by 'a man that is clean,' and laid up 'without the camp in a clean place.' But the priest, he that burned the red heifer, and who gathered her ashes, were to be 'unclean until the even,' to wash their clothes, and the two former also to 'bathe,' their 'flesh in water' (Num 19:7,8). When required for purification, a clean person was to take of those ashes, put them in a vessel, pour upon them 'living water,' then dip hyssop in it, and on the third and seventh days sprinkle him who was to be purified; after which he had to wash his clothes and bathe his flesh, when he became 'clean' on the evening of the seventh day. The tent or house, and all the vessels in it, were to be similarly purified. Lastly, he that touched 'the water of separation,' 'of avoidance,' or 'of uncleanness,' was to be unclean until even, and he that sprinkled it to wash his clothes (Num 19:21).
Death the Greatest Defilement
From all these provisions it is evident that as death carried with it the greatest defilement, so the sin-offering for its purification was in itself and in its consequences the most marked. And its application must have been so frequently necessary in every family and circle of acquaintances that the great truths connected with it were constantly kept in view of the people. In general, it may here be stated, that the laws in regard to defilement were primarily intended as symbols of spiritual truths, and not for social, nor yet sanitary purposes, though such results would also flow from them. Sin had rendered fellowship with God impossible; sin was death, and had wrought death, and the dead body as well as the spiritually dead soul were the evidence of its sway.
Levitical Defilement Traceable to Death
It has been well pointed out (by Sommers, in his Bibl. Abh. vol. i. p. 201, etc.), that all classes of Levitical defilement can ultimately be traced back to death, with its two great outward symptoms, the corruption which appears in the skin on the surface of the body, and to which leprosy may be regarded as akin, and the fluxes from the dead body, which have their counterpart in the morbid fluxes of the living body. As the direct manifestation of sin which separates man from God, defilement by the dead required a sin- offering, and the ashes of the red heifer are expressly so designated in the words: 'It is a sin-offering' (Num 9:17). *
* The Authorised Version translates, without any reason: 'It is a purification for sin.'
But it differs from all other sin-offerings. The sacrifice was to be of pure red color; one 'upon which never came yoke'; * and a female, all other sin-offerings for the congregation being males (Lev 4:14).
* The only other instance in which this is enjoined is Deuteronomy 21:3, though we read of it again in 1 Samuel 6:7.
These particulars symbolically point to life in its freshness, fulness, and fruitfulness--that is, the fullest life and the spring of life. But what distinguished it even more from all others was, that it was a sacrifice offered once for all (at least so long as its ashes lasted); that its blood was sprinkled, not on the altar, but outside the camp towards the sanctuary; and that it was wholly burnt, along with cedarwood, as the symbol of imperishable existence, hyssop, as that of purification from corruption, and 'scarlet,' which from its color was the emblem of life. Thus the sacrifice of highest life, brought as a sin-offering, and, so far as possible, once for all, was in its turn accompanied by the symbols of imperishable existence, freedom from corruption, and fulness of life, so as yet more to intensify its significance. But even this is not all. The gathered ashes with running water were sprinkled on the third and seventh days on that which was to be purified. Assuredly, if death meant 'the wages of sin,' this purification pointed, in all its details, to 'the gift of God,' which is 'eternal life,' through the sacrifice of Him in whom is the fulness of life.
And here there is a remarkable analogy between three sacrifices, which, indeed, form a separate group. The scape-goat, which was to remove the personal guilt of the Israelites--not their theocratic alienation from the sanctuary; the red heifer, which was to take away the defilement of death, as that which stood between God and man; and the 'living bird,' dipped in 'the water and the blood,' and then 'let loose in the field' at the purification from leprosy, which symbolised the living death of personal sinfulness, were all, either wholly offered, or in their essentials completed outside the sanctuary. In other words, the Old Testament dispensation had confessedly within its sanctuary no real provision for the spiritual wants to which they symbolically pointed; their removal lay outside its sanctuary and beyond its symbols. Spiritual death, as the consequence of the fall, personal sinfulness, and personal guilt lay beyond the reach of the Temple-provision, and pointed directly to Him who was to come. Every death, every case of leprosy, every Day of Atonement, was a call for His advent, as the eye, enlightened by faith, would follow the goat into the wilderness, or watch the living bird as, bearing the mingled blood and water, he winged his flight into liberty, or read in the ashes sprung from the burning of the red heifer the emblem of purification from spiritual death. Hence, also, the manifest internal connection between these rites. In the sacrifices of the Day of Atonement and of the purified leper, the offering was twofold, one being slain, the other sent away alive, while the purification from leprosy and from death had also many traits in common.