Chukkat: God’s Surprising Prescription

My dear readers, we have just finished the book of Acts, and are about to start a new series. Before we do that however, I would like to do something else. As you know by now, from time to time I post a Torah Portion (Parashat Shavua) commentary here.  Parashat  Shavua ChuKkat is one of the richest portions of the Torah, and even though we read ChuKkat a few weeks ago,  I would like to share a further commentary on this amazing portion.

Choose Life

ChukKat (“the decree of”) is the first portion that starts the actual movement of the people towards the Land. Forty years have passed in the wilderness – and what is the first thing that God addresses as the people of Israel are about to enter the Land? He speaks about the law of the red heifer – undoubtedly, one of the least understood sacrificial laws in the Old Testament. This law was given to the children of Israel for the purification of those who became ritually unclean by contact with a corpse—the highest form of ritual impurity. Thus, the purpose of this law was to remove the defilement of death that stood between God and man – and isn’t it interesting that this is the first law that God gives His people as they begin moving towards the Land? This law expresses the same very clear division between life and death that we later find in the famous words of Deuteronomy: “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil”. 

In the New Testament, the red heifer is mentioned only once, in Hebrews 9:13-14. Like other OT sacrifices, the law of the red heifer is seen as a type and shadow of the atonement of Jesus Christ. The writer of Hebrews makes it clear that, if the ashes of the red heifer purified the children of Israel from the defilement of dead bodies, “how much more” the blood of Christ will purify his followers from the “dead works”.

However, there is an additional profound aspect of this law: it concerns “the irony of this sacrifice, since those who were once impure are made pure, while those who were pure to begin with (the priest and the attendants) become impure by participating in the ritual.”[1] The priest becomes unclean in order for the people to be purified; he takes upon himself the ritual impurities of man and thereby becomes unclean himself: “the priest shall remain unclean until evening”. This sacral switch has often been overlooked by Christian commentators, but has caused many comments from Jewish scholars. For example, here is the comment that I really like, written by the Lubavitch Rebbe:

“The fact that the ashes of the heifer ‘purify the contaminated and contaminate the pure,’ carries an important lesson to us in our daily lives: If your fellow has been infected by impurity and corruption, do not hesitate to get involved and do everything within your power to rehabilitate him. If you are concerned that you may become tainted by your contact with him, remember that the Torah commands the kohen to purify his fellow Jew, even though his own level of purity will be diminished in the process.”

Because You Did Not Believe In Me

There is another big quandary in this portion: here we read about the sin of Moses that caused God to refuse him entry into the Land. The story itself happens here, and we find here the words of God’s punishment – however, there is no single opinion among the scholars as to what exactly that sin was. We read that, after all these years of journeying through the desert, the people of Israel arrived in Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin. Here Miriam died, and then, immediately after that, “there was no water for the congregation.”

Before we proceed any further, let us ask a question: why there was no water for the congregation after the death of Miriam? Is there any connection between Miriam and water?

From this juxtaposition of Miriam’s death and the lack of water, the Jewish sages concluded that, during all the previous years, the Israelites did have a source of water – the so-called well of Miriam. According to Midrashim, the “well” was actually a rock that followed the Israelites during their entire journey. It was from this rock that Moses first brought forth water when the people complained about their lack of water (in Exodus), and it is the same rock that, after Miriam died, Moses hit in order to draw forth water once again (in Numbers).

By the way, you probably remember the puzzling words of Paul in First Corinthians: For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. It is clear that Paul understood the rock in a spiritual, rather than a physical sense; however, we have to understand that when Paul speaks about a traveling rock, he is drawing on rich traditional interpretation.

We can now continue our reading. As always, the people complain to Moses and Aaron: “Why have you brought up the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we and our animals should die here?” Then God says to Moses: “Take the rod; you and your brother Aaron gather the congregation together. Speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will yield its water; thus you shall bring water for them out of the rock, and give drink to the congregation and their animals.”

Moses and Aaron gather the congregation, and Moses rebukes the people: “Hear now, you rebels! Shall we get you water out of this rock?” Then Moses “lifted his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their animals drank”. It seems like a happy conclusion of yet another unpleasant story. However, we hear God saying to Moses and Aaron: “Because you did not believe Me, to hallow Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.”

So, what was Moses’ sin?

The Jewish commentaries offer different explanations as to what Moses’ (and Aaron’s) sin was. The most traditional one is based on Rashi’s opinion: Rashi said that Moses expressed a lack of faith by striking the rock instead of just speaking to it, as God had instructed. According to Maimonides, Moses’ sin was the fact that he got angry and said to the people, “Hear now, you rebels.”

Another medieval Jewish scholar, Nachmanides, disagrees with both explanations, pointing out that God explicitly says that Moses’ sin was a lack of faith—not disobedience, as in Rashi’s explanation, or anger, as in Maimonides’. Nachmanides therefore explains that the sin was in Moses’ words, “Shall we get you water out of this rock?” Moses says “we” while the miracle should be attributed solely to God – and God’s punishment is a very sober and stern warning to those confusing pronouns, and saying “we” where the glory belongs to Him!

There is another profound lesson in this Torah Portion – the lesson of the Bronze Snake. If you are interested, you can read here my article about it: https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/jewish-studies/torah-portion-in-real-time-chukkat/

The insights you read on these pages, are typical of what we share with our students during DHB (Discovering the Hebrew Bible) or WTP (Weekly Torah Portion)  classes. If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying  in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insightsI would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding eTeacher courses (juliab@eteachergroup.com) .

If you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books,   you can get them here. 

 

[1] Studia Antiqua Volume 4 | Number 1 Article 4 April 2005 , Mélbourne O’Banion The Law of the Red Heifer: A Type and Shadow of Jesus Christ,  p. 35

 

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Gladys Fox

    Dear Julia I forgot to say thank you and I want to say that I trust in what you teach . I believe that God led me to you because He’ trusts you too !

    1. Julia Blum

      Dear Gladys, I really appreciate both your loyalty and your trust! It is a great responsibility, and I don’t take it lightly! Blessings!

  2. Gladys Fox

    Shalom Dear Julia,
    I know without any doubt that God is very real because there is evidence all around ,but there was a time when I began to doubt that Jesus was the Messiah . You see I’d been lied to and mislead by people many times and I myself wasn’t always honest so how could I trust what people told me ? So I asked God to tell because I knew that He wouldn’t mislead me ..
    I also wondered why God was answering many of my prayers twice . It was when I read the two stories about Moses and the rock .The one in Exodus 17 and in Numbers 20 that I finally understood that God was teaching me something that the Jewish people already knew . Now these two stories speak to me of my Lord and Savior Jesus . I see the water as the Word of God , the rock as Jesus ,Moses as those who sit on the seat of Moses and Moses staff as the cross .
    Many Blessings to you and all that you love !

  3. FA QING ZHAO

    Does the Lubavitch Rebbe mean, killing Jesus was to purify Gentile the contaminated and contaminate Jews the pure?

    1. Julia Blum

      Of course, the Lubavitch Rebbe didn’t mean that! He speaks about the red heifer, not about Jesus.