My dear readers, as you know by now, from time to time I post a Torah Portion (Parashat Shavua) commentary here. Today, I would like to share with you the commentary on one of the richest portions in the Torah — Parashat Shavua Chukkat (the reading for the last Shabbat).
The Red Heifer: between life and death
Chukat is the first portion that starts the actual movement of the people towards the Land. Thirty eight 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 Red Heifer! Why?
Undoubtedly, the law of the Red Heifer is 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, and the fact that this is the first law that God gives His people when they start moving towards the Land, is very significant. This law expresses the very clear division between life and death that later we find also in the famous words of Deuteronomy: “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil”.
God always wants us to choose life – and here He shows us the way He provided: “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.” 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”; the priest touches the death, in order for those who were touched by the death, to be purified and to live – and in doing so, he might be seen as a type of Jesus Christ in the New Testament, who, being pure and sinless, took upon himself the impurity and the sins of people, in order for people to become clean; who experienced the death, in order for those who were touched by the death, to be purified and to live.
The Rock That Followed Them
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 understands the rock in a spiritual, rather than a physical sense; but why does Paul speak about a travelling rock?
Paul draws here on a rich Jewish exegetical tradition. In the Torah’s description of Israel’s wandering in the desert we find only two episodes depicting the miraculous provision of water – at the very beginning of the wilderness wandering period (Ex. 17), and at the end of the wandering period – the same rock that we read about in our Torah Portion today: “ The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 8 Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water.” Naturally, the question arises: how were the Israelites getting water in the time between these episodes – in fact, all these years?
An interpretative tradition was developed in order to explain this gap and to give a supernatural answer to this natural question. According to this tradition, the rock of Numbers 20 is the same rock that we saw in Exodus 17, at the beginning of the journey; therefore, this rock must have followed the Israelites during their entire journey.
It is likely that the concept of the rock accompanying the Israelites had already been established in Judaism by Paul’s time, and Paul just draws here on this traditional interpretation. This is only one example of how understanding Jewish tradition enhances and deepens our understanding of the New Testament.
The Bronze Snake
The beginning of this story is very traditional. Even though the Israelites are coming close to the Land and the journey is almost over, once again, like so many times before (only in this Torah Portion it happens for the second time), they 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!” 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.” So Moses prayed for the people.
The Lord did save them from the snakes, but His salvation came in a completely unexpected form. He gave Moses an extremely strange order: “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live. So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole”. Why? 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 rebel against God, our choice always 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 here. 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 at all incidental 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? Yes, 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 the story. In order to heal actual snake bites, you would expect an “actual” remedy: some medicine, treatment, action. Instead, the children of Israel are simply told to look at the bronze snake—only to look, in order to live! “And so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived”.
I suppose many 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 Elisha to be healed, but became furious and almost went away after Elisha 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 do 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 illogical it might have seemed to them, it was the only way to survive—to be saved. Those who chose to look at the bronze serpent lived, and everyone else perished. Probably, none of them understood – but this is exactly what faith is about: obeying the Lord, even when we don’t understand… And this is, I believe, the main lesson of this amazing Torah Portion!
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 insights, I would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding eTeacher courses (firstname.lastname@example.org) .
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