What does it say?
God speaks directly to Aaron to confirm the priesthood and instructions previously given to Moses (Num 18). Chapters 16-18 form a single unit showing the priesthood attacked (16), miraculously defended by God (17) and reconfirmed to Aaron (18).
The red heifer sacrifice (Num 19) has been a source of speculation for Jews and Christians alike. It was not given in Leviticus, but is probably connected to the Korah rebellion in which thousands of people died in a short time. Carrying out and burying the bodies would have ceremoniously contaminated many thousands more. The stated purpose of this special, one-time offering is to cleanse those contaminated by contact with death.
Israel is back at Kadesh where they were before the 38 wasted years (Num 20). This transition chapter records the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, symbolizing the death of the generation. Sadly, Moses also rebels and is prohibited from entering the land. Dr. Thomas Constable summarizes this way: Moses harshly rebuked the people (v. 10), took credit for what God had done (v. 10), resented the Israelites (v. 10), lost his temper (v. 11), disobeyed God (v. 11), did not trust God’s power (v. 12), failed to glorify God (v. 12), and rebelled against God (v. 24).
What does it mean?
All of the Levitical sacrifices speak of some aspect of Christ’s sacrificial death, and the offering of the red heifer also points to Christ (Heb 9:13-14). The red heifer was without blemish and sacrificed outside the camp, just like Christ for us. This sacrifice emphasizes the continuous cleansing we need from our sins (1Joh 1:7-9).
We can understand Moses’ frustration with Israel’s constant complaining and rebellion. God told him to speak to the rock to bring forth water; Moses hit it twice. This may seem trivial, but we know that the rock pictures Christ (1Cor 10:2-4), and Christ can die only once. (Rom 6:10), Striking the rock pictures Christ smitten once-for-all for our sin. Because of Christ’s death, we now only have to speak the word (1Joh 5:14-15).
How will I respond?
The mission does not depend upon me. God’s great work of redemption is grounded in what Jesus Christ did in his death, burial and resurrection. As his follower, I put my faith in what he has already done, not in my works. Pioneer missionary William Carey famously said, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” Moses reversed the order. From Dr. Thomas’ list of Moses’ eight offenses, can I identify a specific offense that is a constant temptation for me? What step will I take to growth my faith in this area?