Thanks to modern critical scholarship—and the work of Jacob Milgrom in particular—we can recover the original meaning and rationale of the red heifer rite.7 Explains Milgrom: The red heifer is a hattat, a purification offering, which in this case decontaminates death impurity (Numbers 19:9). Blood—which is the carrier of life (see Leviticus 17:11)—is the decontaminant of death impurity. The blood plus the ashes of the all red cow—also symbolizing blood—is mixed with cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson yarn to create a liquid which purges the death impurity. Part of the blood is sprinkled toward the altar to purge the tabernacle/temple. The rest is sprinkled on the impure individual, moving them from the zone of being under death’s influence to the zone of life. This makes them eligible to enter the tabernacle/temple, the zone of life dominant and growing. In symbolic language, this is the repeated, fundamental message of our tradition, that the human is to shake off death and act, work, and live on the side of life and in creating life in the world.
Milgrom also points out that the single anomaly that most bewildered the Talmud—that the ashes of the cow purified the impure but made the priestly handler ritually impure—is a characteristic of the hattat sacrifice in general. The death impurity is “absorbed” by the hattat, rendering the individual pure; but it itself is now imbued with the impurity, and so therefore renders its handlers impure. Thus, the priestly handler of the ashes must immerse overnight to become pure again.8
Understanding the Mystifying: The Red Heifer Commandment—and Every Other Commandment R. Yitz Greenberg – [email protected] Parashat Hukkat 5781
I cannot overstate the extent to which the interpretation of this passage has anchored the conventional view of Judaism’s relationship to Messianism. It has been generally assumed by modern folks that Jews have always given the passage a metaphorical reading, understanding the suffering servant to refer to the People of Israel, and that it was the Christians who changed and distorted its meaning to make it refer to Jesus. Quite to the contrary, we now know that many Jewish authorities, maybe even most, until nearly the modern period have read Isaiah 53 as being about the Messiah; until the last few centuries, the allegorical reading was a minority position.
Boyarin, Daniel. The Jewish Gospels (Kindle Locations 2078-2083). The New Press. Kindle Edition.
"At first blush, the meaning of these verses seems clear: the sacrifice of the first-born is indeed an abomination, just as Jeremiah thought. But, whereas Jeremiah (Jeremiah 19: 9-6) vociferously denied the origin of the practice in the will of YHWH, Ezekiel affirmed it: YHWH gave Israel "laws that were not good" in order to desolate them, for only as they were desolated, only as they were brought to humiliation, could they come to recognize YHWH and obey his sovereign will.
Here, as often in the Hebrew Bible, God's goodness conflicts with his providential designs: he wills evil in order to accomplish good. The evil that he once willed is the law that requires the sacrifice of the first-born. The good toward which this aims is Israel's ultimate recognition and exaltation of him as their sole God." The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, Jon D. Levenson, Yale University Press 1993 pp 4-5