by Glenn Harris | January 01 1970
Our parasha for this Shabbat is entitled Chukat, meaning “Statute (of the Law)” and covers Numbers 19 – 21. Chapter 19 includes the commandment concerning the ashes of the now-famous “Red Heifer”. I say “now famous” because of the renewed interest in the re-building of the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple, in Jerusalem, and the fascination of Evangelical Christians with events transpiring in Israel. You see, in order for Temple services to be reinstituted a consecrated priesthood is necessary, and that is not possible without the ashes of a flawless, all-red heifer – something which until just a few years ago had not existed in Israel for millennia. The ashes of the red heifer were for cleansing those who had contact with a dead person. Priests were not to have any contact with the dead (a law which continues to this day among priestly families, [eg. those whose last name is Cohen]). But it could happen inadvertently – and without those ashes the priest could no longer attend the altar.
A lot of grief and sadness occupies chapter 20. Miriam died and was buried in Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin. The Edomites refused peaceful passage to Israel, so that we had to take a much longer, less hospitable route. Later the congregation arrived at Mt.Hor, where God summoned Moses, Aaron and Eleazar up the mountain, telling Aaron to place his mantle on his son Eleazar, after which Aaron died and was gathered to his people.
But in between the passing of these two great leaders, our people once again complained, accusing Moses and Aaron of malevolence in having brought us into the arid, desolate wilderness. We conveniently forgot that the wilderness wandering was our own doing. In fear and unbelief we had refused to enter the land and God decreed this to be our lot.
Meanwhile, there was no water in the wilderness of Zin. Moses and Aaron came to the Tent of Meeting, where God told them to assemble the people, speak to the rock and God would provide water. The people assembled, but then Moses did a grievous thing. He said, “Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” Striking the rock twice with his staff, water began to gush forth – enough for everyone! But by this sin, Moses forfeited the privilege of bringing Israel into the Promised Land.
Chapter 21 recounts Israel’s complaining about the manna. Because of this sin, God sent poisonous serpents into the camp. I don’t believe the snakes bit arbitrarily, but zeroed in on the complainers. Many died, and the people came to Moses, confessing their sin and asking him to intercede before God for forgiveness and rescue. God ordered Moses to fashion a bronze serpent, and whoever got bitten needed only to come out of their tent, look up to that snake-on-a-pole, and they would live. Of course, if that was you, it also meant everyone would know that you were one of the complainers, but it sure beat dying!
Yeshua made reference to this event when speaking to Nicodemus in John chapter 3. The serpent on the pole was a foreshadowing of the Messiah’s suffering on a Roman cross. Just as our people had to come out in the open and acknowledge our sins, look up to that standard and live, so it is today – we must come to Yeshua openly, admit our sins, look to Him and live. God is the same merciful God today, but salvation is always on His terms!
Note: Each Torah portion is named from the first word or first few words of the portion of scripture. This portion is called Chukat חֻקַּת. Other transliterations: Hukath, or Chukkas