Numbers 17-20: Priests, red cow ritual

For the disobedience of the 250 chieftains, the LORD punishes the Israelites with a plague and commands Moses and Aaron to offer incense as expiation.  The plague kills 14,700.  To further prove Aaron’s superiority, the LORD asks all tribes to inscribe the name of their chieftain on a staff; overnight, Aaron’s staff had produced blossoms and almonds.  The LORD speaks to Aaron, giving to his priesthood all sacred donations, gift offerings, elevation offerings, and the best of the new grain.  The Levites get all tithes from Israel, except they must also give a tithe to the priests.

When somebody becomes unclean through contact with a human corpse, or through being in the same tent as someone who died, must undergo the red cow ritual.  A priest shall watch as a butcher slaughters a red cow, sprinkles its blood 7 times in front of the Tent of Meeting, and burns the rest.  The ashes shall be put outside the camp.  A clean person must mix hyssop, water, and some of the ashes, and sprinkle the mixture on the unclean person.  If this ritual is not done, the unclean person should be cut off from his people.

The Israelites complain about lack of water; Moses and Aaron, following the LORD’s instructions, strikes a rock to get water.  Because they did not following the LORD’s instructions to the letter, they are forbidden from entering the promised land.  Afterwards, the Israelites ask the Edomites for permission to pass through their territory, but they refuse.


  • It is unclear how Moses and Aaron disobeyed the LORD, and why this disobedience warrants the severe punishment of never entering the promised land.  One possibility is that they said “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (20:10), which could be taking credit for themselves instead of crediting God.
  • The red cow ritual is probably an example of sympathetic magic.  Because the cow is red, and red is the color of blood–which in turn represents life–the pollution emanating from corpses can be absorbed by the ashes of a red cow.
  • In the JE version of the exodus, the Israelites are denied permission to cross through Edom and must go around it; this detour takes 38 years.  In Deuteronomy, however, the Israelites are granted permission to pass through Edom (Deut 2:1-8).
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