Chukkat: The Divine Switch

My  dear readers, even though  I love writing about Abraham – and I hope you enjoy reading it – I’ve  still decided to pause here, in order to share with you the commentaries on one of the most important and interesting Torah Portions— Parashat Shavua Chukat – which we are reading this Shabbat.

The Red Heifer: The Sacral Switch  

The first thing that makes this Torah portion very special, is the simple fact that there had been a leap of  38  years since the last portion. So far, we have been dealing with the first two years of Israel’s wandering in the desert; Chukat is the first portion that  starts the actual movement of the people towards the Land. And what is the first thing that God addresses as the people of Israel are about to enter the Land? He speaks about the very clear division between life and death!

This Portion  begins  with the law of the red heifer—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 become ritually unclean by contact with a corpse— the highest form of ritual impurity. Thus, the  purpose of this  law was “ to take away the defilement of death that stood between God and man”[1] – and isn’t it interesting that this is the first law that God gives His people when they start moving towards the Land?

In the New Testament, the red heifer is mentioned only once, in Heb. 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 sacrifice that is often overlooked by Christian interpreters: 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.”[2]  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” – and in doing so, he might be seen as a type of Jesus Christ in the NT, who, being pure and sinless, took upon himself the impurity and the sins of people, in order for people to become clean.


The Bronze Snake

The story of the Bronze Snake is one the most graphic and expressive stories in the Torah. The beginning of this  story is very traditional. By now, we are used to, even tired of, the endless rebellions in the wilderness – and we are somewhat surprised and disappointed that after these 38 years, the new generation, like their fathers, also spoke against God and against Moshe, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”[3]  In response, God sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many died from their bites. Then people came to Moses and said: “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.”[4]

It was their request and their desire—quite a natural and understandable desire, I would say—that the Lord would save them from the snakes. And the Lord did save them from the snakes, but His salvation came in a completely unexpected form. Wouldn’t you expect Him to simply take away the snakes if He forgave the people and decided to save them anyway? Instead, He gives Moses an extremely strange order: “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole… So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole.” [5]

The Torah is like a spiritual X-ray: what is invisible on the surface level, becomes visible here. With our reasoning minds, we can wonder why. Why all these strange preparations? Why all this work on bronze, instead of just taking away the snakes? However, this story shows us, in the most graphic way possible, one of the basic principles of spiritual life: when we sin, when we choose to turn from God, our choice has very real, inescapable consequences. It changes and distorts reality, either inside or outside of us (oftentimes both), although these changes are not always as visible as in our Torah story. Later, when the consequences of our sin inevitably begin to ‘bite us’, we start crying out to the Lord, begging Him to save us—to take away the snakes, to take away the consequences. Yet, even God Himself doesn’t simply restore things as if our sinful choices never happened; even He Himself does not simply flick away our sin and the evil that it caused.

Were we to read our text in Hebrew, we would be amazed by the abundance of the hushing, hissing sounds here: Nashach (to bite), Nechash (snake), Nechoshet (bronze)… as if indeed the hissing of the snakes filled up these verses. It’s not incidental at all that there are snakes in this story: the first sin entered the world through the snake—the serpent—and what else, if not sin—crawling, hissing and biting—is represented by these snakes in our Torah Portion? And it is not enough to just take away the snakes, the venom is already at work, and therefore, God has to bring forth a remedy – so  that all who were bitten would live!

What is this remedy? This is the most astonishing part of this story!  Wouldn’t you expect an entirely practical remedy in order to heal actual snake bites: some medicine, treatment, ointment. Instead, the children of Israel are simply told to look at the bronze snake— only to look, in order to live! They didn’t need to come closer, to touch it, or to do anything with it, they just had to look at it! “And so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.”    The switch happened  again!

Probably, some of them doubted, even grumbled: ‘What good can it do, if I just look at this serpent?’ But this is exactly the point of this story: it  matters not whether His remedy meets our expectations. Do you remember Naaman, a commander of the Syrian army, who was a leper? He went to the prophet Elisha to be healed, but became furious and almost went away after Elisha’s advice didn’t meet his expectations. He said: Behold, I thought…- and almost missed his own healing, just because he thought it should be performed in a different way! How often  we miss something that God is doing, just because we think it should be done differently: Behold, I thought…

There, in the wilderness, God offered his healing to everyone. However strange and unexpected it might have seemed,  it was the only way to be saved. Those who chose to look at the bronze serpent lived – everyone else perished. Probably, none of them understood. I suppose Moses himself was puzzled and couldn’t understand why he needed to do it, but this is exactly what faith is about: obeying the Lord, even when we don’t understand. And this is the main lesson of the Torah Portion Chukkat.

 I  would like to remind you, my dear readers and followers, that we have a wonderful course at eTeacher, where you can learn from Parashot Shavua commentaries along with their New Testament interpretation. As always, you are welcome to contact me for more information! My email is

Excerpts from my  books are included in many  posts on this blog, you  can get  my books  from  my page:   

Also,  my last book “Unlocking the Scriptures”  is published and is available on Amazon:

[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. 33

[2] Ibid. , p. 35

[3] Num.21:4

[4] Num.21:7

[5] Num.21:8,9


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. Kate Hawkins

    Wonderful dear Julia!
    On our way out to the Land today This is awesome clarification of some of the strange happenings between Abba Father and those forever wandering Israelites. Such rich lessons for us all to learn from to apply in our lives where we too wander & wonder. Thankyou for that challenge to Stop & Look…

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Kate! Great to hear from you! Hope you will have a wonderful time in the Land! And yes, you are absolutely right, we too are wander and wonder – but that’s the reason He gave us this Book, to teach us to trust Him. this Torah portion is one the most amazing examples of this trust that He expects from us!

  2. Nick Edwards

    Thanks Julia! As at Sinai, obey first and understand later?

    1. Julia Blum

      Absolutely! This is what faith is about – and this is the main lesson of this whole Book!