Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
(2) This is the ordinance of the law . . . —This combination of the two words denoting “law” and “statute or ordinance” is peculiar. It occurs once more in Numbers 31:21, and seems to imply the importance of the law which was about to be given. The extraordinary mortality which the Israelites had sustained (Numbers 16:49) may have called for some special rites of purification from the defilement caused by contact with the dead. There is no distinct intimation, however, of the time at which this law was first promulgated, which Ibn Ezra and others suppose to have been previously to the departure from Sinai. The words “which the Lord hath (or had) commanded” are consistent with the fact of the previous existence of the ordinance, though not necessarily suggestive of it. This institution was one which admitted of observance in the wilderness under circumstances in which other requirements of the Levitical law could not be observed.
Without spot.—The word so translated may be taken in connection with that which precedes it, and may denote that the heifer was to be entirely red; or it may, more probably, be taken in connection with the words which follow, and may be understood as defining more precisely the freedom of the animal from every defect. (Comp. Leviticus 22:19-20.)
And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying,
And Eleazar the priest shall take of her blood with his finger, and sprinkle of her blood directly before the tabernacle of the congregation seven times:(4) And Eleazar the priest shall take of her blood . . . —The appointed rites were to be discharged by Eleazar, not by Aaron, who would otherwise have been temporarily disqualified by legal impurity from the discharge of his high-priestly functions.
Before the tabernacle of the congregation . . . —i.e., opposite to the entrance of the Tabernacle, but, as stated in the preceding verse, outside the camp, because the act had reference to the uncleanness of death.
And the priest shall take cedar wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer.(6) And the priest shall take cedar wood, and hyssop, and scarlet.—According to the Targum of Jonathan, another priest was to do this, but the reference seems to be to Eleazar. Cedar-wood may be regarded as the emblem of fragrance and incorruption; hyssop as the emblem of purification; and scarlet (or crimson) wool or cloth may be regarded as emblematical both of sin, which is compared to it in Isaiah 1:18, and also of the blood, which is the life, the shedding of which was needful in order to the remission of sin. All of these were used in the purification of the leper (Leviticus 14:4). In both cases there appears to be a typical reference to the sprinkling of the blood of Christ. (See. Hebrews 9:13-14).
Then the priest shall wash his clothes, and he shall bathe his flesh in water, and afterward he shall come into the camp, and the priest shall be unclean until the even.(7) Then the priest . . . —The Targum of Jonathan refers these words to the priest who killed the heifer, and Ibn Ezra to the priest who burnt it; but the reference is more probably, as in the preceding verse, to Eleazar.
And he that gathereth the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even: and it shall be unto the children of Israel, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among them, for a statute for ever.(10) And it shall be unto the children of Israel, and unto the stranger . . . —So the promise of the remission of sins through Christ Jesus was not only to the Jews and to their children, but also to all that were afar off. (See Acts 2:39.)
He that toucheth the dead body of any man shall be unclean seven days.(11) He that toucheth the dead body . . . —The defilement caused by touching the dead body of a beast lasted only until the evening (Leviticus 11:24). The death of man was the wages of sin; and hence contact with the dead body of a man was attended by ceremonial defilement of longer duration.
He shall purify himself with it on the third day, and on the seventh day he shall be clean: but if he purify not himself the third day, then the seventh day he shall not be clean.(12) He shall purify himself . . . —The verse may be rendered thus: He shall purify himself with it on the third day and on the seventh day; so shall he be clean; but if he purify not himself on the third day and on the seventh day, then he shall not be clean: so the LXX. and Vulg. (See Numbers 19:19.)
And for an unclean person they shall take of the ashes of the burnt heifer of purification for sin, and running water shall be put thereto in a vessel:(17) of the ashes of the burnt heifer of purification for sin.—Better, of the ashes of the burnt sin-offering; literally, of the burning of the sin-offering.
And the clean person shall sprinkle upon the unclean on the third day, and on the seventh day: and on the seventh day he shall purify himself, and wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and shall be clean at even.(19) He shall purify himself, and wash . . . —The rendering should be, he (i.e., the clean person) shall purify him (i.e., the unclean person), and he (the unclean person) shall wash . . .