The Red Heifer in the Epistle of Barnabas

This Sabbath is Shabbat Parah, the Sabbath of the red heifer. On Shabbat Parah, synagogues have a special reading of Numbers 19, the passage about the red heifer.

The writer of the book of Hebrews associated the ceremony of the red heifer with the death and resurrection of Yeshua. Likewise, the apocryphal Epistle of Baranabas takes the analogy further, making several interesting correlations between the death of the Messiah and the burning of the red heifer and the purification through the ashes of the red heifer as described in Numbers 19.

His description incorporates elements of Jewish tradition which find corroboration in the Mishnah and Talmud. According to the Epistle of Barnabas, the entire ceremony creates a prophetic picture of spiritual purification, forgiveness of sins, and renewal that comes through the suffering of Messiah, the cross, and the Messianic redemption.

The apocryphal, second-century Epistle of Barnabas was not written by the apostle Barnabas. It contains anti-Jewish and anti-Torah material consistent with the emergence of second-century Christianity. Nevertheless, the epistle does record priestly customs from the late Second Temple Era, some of which find corroboration in later rabbinic sources and some of which are otherwise unknown.

Red Heifer Sacrifice

Now what pattern is depicted when He commanded Israel that men whose sins are complete should offer a heifer, and slay and burn it. (Epistle of Barnabas 8:1a)

The author states that the Torah requires “men whose sins are complete” to perform the rituals of slaughtering and burning the red heifer. The Torah assigns the task only to the priesthood: “You shall give [the red heifer] to Eleazar the priest, and it shall be brought outside the camp and be slaughtered in his presence” (Numbers 19:3). Why does Barnabas describe the officiating priests as “men whose sins are complete”? On a rhetorical level, the author of Barnabas has the Sadducean priesthood in view. Caiaphas and his colleagues, the men responsible for the crucifixion of Yeshua, fit the description as “men whose sins are complete.” That is to say, they are completely sinful.

The unusual description has a basis in an argument from Jewish law. The Sadducees believed that the priest conducting the sacrifice of the red heifer needed to be in a state of complete ritual purity, as it says, “Now a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer” (Numbers 19:9). They contended that it was not sufficient for a priest to simply immerse on the day of the ceremony. To be completely ritually pure, the priest needed to have immersed the previous day, in order to fulfill the verse that says, “He shall not eat of the holy gifts unless he has bathed his body in water. But when the sun sets, he will be clean” (Leviticus 22:6-7). The Pharisees disagreed. They taught that this law applied only to eating the tithes, but not to the slaughter of the red heifer. To enforce the Pharisaic opinion, the Sanhedrin required the priests conducting the offering of the heifer to contract a state of ritual impurity on the day of the ceremony by handling a dead reptile. The priests then immersed and carried out the slaughter prior to sundown—thereby thwarting the opinion of the Sadducees. [1] The author of Barnabas might be making a cryptic reference to the custom of defiling the priests before they undertook the ritual when he says, “men whose sins are complete.” That is to say, men who have been defiled.

Alternatively, he seems to intentionally engage in Hebrew wordplay on the word “sin.” The Hebrew verb chata (חטא) sometimes denotes purification instead of sin.[2] In this way, he could allude to the Sadducean opinion that a priest must be completely pure in order to carry out the ceremony, but instead of reading the root word chata as “pure,” he reads it as “sinful.” Hence, “Men whose sins are complete” instead of “men whose purification is complete.” This type of rabbinic wordplay, by which a person intentionally misreads what is written to draw out a new inference, appears frequently in the Midrash and Talmud. The author of the epistle seems to employ it here as a polemic against the Sadducean priesthood and as a component of his theological discussion about sin and spiritual purification.

The Children

And that then the children should take the ashes and place them into vessels, and tie scarlet wool around a stick (notice the symbolism of the cross and the scarlet wool) and the hyssop, and then the children should sprinkle the people, one by one, in order that they might be purified from their sins? (Epistle of Barnabas 8:1b)

The Torah says that “A clean person shall take hyssop and dip it in the water” mixed with the ashes of the heifer “and sprinkle it” for the purification from Levitical defilment incurred by contact with a corpse (Numbers 19:18). The author of the epistle claims that the Jewish community used children for this function. Children gathered the ashes, placed them in vessels with living water, and sprinkled those in need of purification. To administer the sprinkling, the children dipped hyssop tied together with scarlet wool and a stick of wood (cedar wood) into the vessels.

Why does the author state that children carried out this ritual? The Torah indicates only that “a clean person” was required to conduct the sprinkling.

Administering the sprinkling defiles the one who sprinkles. The Torah says, “He who sprinkles the water for impurity … shall be unclean until evening” (Numbers 19:21). Jewish law does not ascribe ritual impurity to children under the age of nine.[3] Children over the age of nine are potentially susceptible to certain ceremonial defilements, but below that age, they have the legal status of ritual purity. Therefore children are the ideal candidates to carry out this ceremony. They are ritually pure by default and not susceptible to defilement.

The Mishnah corroborates the use of the children in the red heifer ceremony. According to the Mishnah, the priesthood employed young boys of the priesthood for certain parts of the ceremony:

They bring pregnant women, who give birth there [in special ritually pure courts in Jerusalem], and raise their sons there, until they are seven or eight years old. They bring oxen, and on top of them are doors. And the children sit on top of them. Rabbi Yehudah says, “Oxen with broad bellies, so that the feet of the children do not extend and become unclean by reason of a grave of the depths.” All agree that the children must be immersed. They said before Rabbi Akiva in the name of Rabbi Yishmael (the priest), “Stone cups were suspended from the horns of the oxen. When the oxen kneeled down to drink, the cups were filled up.” (t.Parah 3:2)[4]

The boys on the oxen drew the water from the Pool of Siloam and mixed the water with the ashes. According to the author of Barnabas, three boys took part in the ritual. The boys administered the sprinkling of the water using the bundle of hyssop, cedar, and wool. He sees the stick of red cedar as an allusion to the cross of Yeshua.

The Symbolism Explained

Consider how simply He speaks to you. The calf is Jesus; the sinful men who offer it are those who led Him to the slaughter. Then no longer men—no longer the sinful glory. (Epistle of Barnabas 8:2)

The author of the epistle explains that the red heifer symbolizes Yeshua. The same teaching appears in the book of Hebrews:

For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Yeshua also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate. So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. (Hebrews 13:11-13)

The writer of the book of Hebrews saw a messianic foreshadowing in the location of the burning of the heifer. The priesthood burned the red heifer on the Mount of Olives, outside the city walls, and directly across from the Temple Mount.[5] They burned the bodies of the sin offerings in the same location. Like the red heifer taken outside the city to be slaughtered, Yeshua died outside Jerusalem’s walls. The writer of the book of Hebrews takes the parallel even further. Just as the red heifer’s sacrifice purified people from the contamination incurred by death, Yeshua’s sacrifice cleanses from the contamination of sin, which leads to death. The book of Hebrews observes that, if “the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Messiah” spiritually cleanse a person from sin (Hebrews 9:13-14).

The author of Barnabas takes the analogy a step further, comparing the priesthood responsible for slaughtering the heifer with the Sadducean priests who plotted against the Master’s life and turned Him over to the Romans.

He finds it significant that, in Temple practice, the priests did not administer the sprinkling themselves. After the slaughter and burning of the heifer, corresponding to the slaying of the Messiah, the priests had completed their task.

The Disciples as Children

But the children that sprinkle are those who have proclaimed good news to us about the forgiveness of sins and purification of heart. To these He gave authority to proclaim the good news, twelve of them as witnesses to the tribes, for there are twelve tribes of Israel. (Epistle of Barnabas 8:3)

The author of Barnabas considers the sprinkling children to be a prophetic picture of the Master’s disciples proclaiming the gospel message and the forgiveness of sins. Just as the children sprinkle the water of purification to remove Levitical defilement, the disciples proclaim spiritual purification. Yeshua often referred to His disciples as “children,” and He compared those who will receive the kingdom to children. The author of the epistle also notes that the twelve disciples correspond to the twelve tribes of Israel.

Three Forefathers

But why are there three children that sprinkle? As a witness of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, because these were great with God. (Epistle of Barnabas 8:4)

The author of Barnabas states that three children were employed in the ritual. He seems to find some tension between the twelve disciples mentioned in the previous verse and his own knowledge that the ritual used only three children. He asks, “Why are there three children?” It’s a question which his readers would never have posed unless it was well known that the ceremony involved only three children. The unstated but implied question raised by his interpretation is, “Why were there not twelve children?” The author replies that the three children correspond to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the forefathers of the twelve tribes. Therefore, just as the number twelve symbolizes all Israel, the number three can symbolize the whole nation.

The Cross

And why was the wool placed upon the stick? Because the kingdom of Jesus is on the tree and those who hope in Him will live forever. (Epistle of Barnabas 8:5)

The child sprinkling the water of purification did so by plunging a cedar stick and hyssop rod tied with scarlet wool into the water and using it as a wand. The Torah itself simply mentions using hyssop for this purpose, but the author of the epistle reports the custom of the Temple. He interprets the scarlet wool in reference to Yeshua. The wool is tied to a stick, alluding to the crucifixion of the Master on a tree. The sprinkling purifies a person from the contamination incurred by contact with human death. Likewise, those who hope in Messiah “will live forever,” set free from death.

Dark Days

And why the wool and hyssop together? Because in His kingdom there will be dark and evil days, from which we will be saved, for he who physically suffers finds healing from the dark juice of the hyssop. (Epistle of Barnabas 8:6)

The author of Barnabas makes a further observation about the hyssop bundle. The wool and the hyssop are bound together. The scarlet wool represents suffering, but the fragrant hyssop represents healing. He claims that the “dark juice of the hyssop” could be used for medicinal purposes. The combination of suffering and healing reminds the author of the time of tribulation Israel and the believing community must endure before the advent of the kingdom: the birth pangs of Messiah. The author considers the crimson wool to allude to the community’s current situation (circa 130 CE) as those “dark and evil days” which preface the final redemption. The healing hyssop symbolizes that “we will be saved” from these dark days that prepare for the kingdom.

Therefore, the meaning of these ceremonies is obvious to us, but to them they are obscure, for they did not listen to the voice of the Master. (Epistle of Barnabas 8:7)

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  1. Colorful Ceremonies in the Beis Hamikdash: Based on the Rambam (Brooklyn, NY: Torah Umesorah Publications), 200. Cf. Totafot Yom Tov to t.Parah 3:7; m.Parah 3:7.
  2. Chata in the intensive stems—Pi’el (chitte) and Hitpa’el (hitchatta)—implies purification. In both chitte and hitchatta, note the doubled second consonant; likewise, the noun chattat (sin offering), with its doubled second consonant, appears to derive from the intensified stems and can refer to purification. For examples of the word used to indicate purification, see Exodus 29:36, Leviticus 14:49, Numbers 31:20, Psalm 51:7. For further discussion, see Torah Club: Depths of the Torah Parashat Vayikra, on Leviticus 4:2.
  3. t.Parah 3:2.
  4. Cf. m.Parah 3:2.
  5. m.Parah 3:5-10.

Source: First Fruits of Zion