Caring for the Dead

Scripture Focus: Numbers 19.11, 16
11 “Whoever touches a human corpse will be unclean for seven days.

16 “Anyone out in the open who touches someone who has been killed with a sword or someone who has died a natural death, or anyone who touches a human bone or a grave, will be unclean for seven days.

Reflection: Caring for the Dead
By Erin Newton

There is, in fact, a sting to death. It is painful and cruel. It rends our hearts with each new loss. Within the mortal body was someone dearly loved. With a final embrace, a closing of eyes—we often seek to lay their bodies to rest with gentleness and care.

In the ancient world, such contact with the dead led to a week’s worth of impurity. Those defiled by contact with death could not enter the Temple until they were cleansed. Death could not reside within the presence of God. Death is the antithesis to a Creator God.

Numbers 19 details purification through the washing of water mixed with the ashes of a red heifer. The ash-mixed water with other cleansing agents was sprinkled on those defiled by contact with the dead. This law, combined with the natural trajectory of life, meant this practice occurred quite frequently.

Respect and care for the dead could not be avoided, even if the cleansing ritual was inconvenient. Even in death, each person is an image bearer of God. Each mortal body must be treated with dignity and honor.

When Jesus died upon the cross, Joseph of Arimathea requested his body so he could be buried before the Sabbath. John tells us that it was Nicodemus who brought the burial spices and helped wrap the body in linen. Joseph and Nicodemus willingly entered a week of impurity. We do not hear from them again.

It is fascinating to consider the crucified Lord, having been prepared for burial and causing two men to enter a state of impurity, would choose to join with his disciples three days after his death. This same God who declares the uncleanliness of death is now content to meet with them, dine with them, and let them touch his body. They are at no risk of defilement; Jesus is no walking corpse. He is alive.

The purity laws are always reversed with Jesus. No longer does the impurity of death or bleeding pass from one person to another. Now it is purity that moves from the Son of God to mere mortals. The ashes of a heifer could outwardly clean, but the blood of Christ does so much more (Heb 9:12-14).

How we honor our dead continues to reflect the value and dignity of each person. But no longer does death stand between our intimacy with God. Death has no victory.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Small Verse
Let me seek the Lord while he may still be found. I will call upon his name while he is near.

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 19 (Listen 3:39)
1 Thessalonians 1 (Listen 1:27)

Read more about The Staggering Dead and the Glory of God
One day, as Lazarus and our dear Christ, himself…we will leave our grave clothes behind. That is the glory of God.

Read more about The Broken Power of Death
For those in Christ, death is a toothless predator, a limbless wrestler, who cannot hold us down for long.

Water of Cleansing

Scripture Focus: Numbers 19.1-8
1 Tell the Israelites to bring you a red heifer without defect or blemish and that has never been under a yoke. 3 Give it to Eleazar the priest; it is to be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence. 4 Then Eleazar the priest is to take some of its blood on his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the tent of meeting. 5 While he watches, the heifer is to be burned—its hide, flesh, blood and intestines. 6 The priest is to take some cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet wool and throw them onto the burning heifer. 7 After that, the priest must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water. He may then come into the camp, but he will be ceremonially unclean till evening. 8 The man who burns it must also wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he too will be unclean till evening. 

Reflection: Water of Cleansing
By John Tillman

The water of cleansing required extraordinarily detailed criteria for the sacrifice which specified both gender and color. The ashes from this sacrifice were used to make “water of cleansing”. Whenever someone became unclean for any reason, a ritual using the water of cleansing could restore them to a state of ritual cleanliness.

One of the unique aspects of the making of the water of cleansing was that in the process of making it, the priest himself became unclean. Only by allowing himself to become unclean, could the priest carry out the rituals needed to cleanse others.

We sometimes equate being unclean with committing sin. There were sins that made one unclean, but there were also many normal parts of life which could make one unclean. 

Uncleanness was not necessarily a penalty for sinning, but a reminder that sin existed amidst the harsh realities of the world. People became unclean by simply living life in a world in which death happened, for example. Mourning a relative who died would involve becoming unclean by touching and tending to the dead body. Joseph and Nicodemus and the women who attended to the body of Jesus all became ritually unclean. 

Laws around ritual purity also reminded the Israelites that they were a unique and special people called to live in a unique degree of holiness.

Similarly, we are called to a unique degree of holiness, yet, there are harsh realities of life that make us unclean. We live in a world in which death happens and injustice, greed, and lust lay waste. We cannot go about our lives without being touched and made unclean by their destruction.

We, however, do not make our own water of cleansing. Our high priest, Jesus, supplies it for us through his sacrifice. He fulfilled all the requirements. He met all the criteria. He allowed himself to become defiled so that we could be made clean. Through confession and prayer, we can be cleansed daily from the uncleanness of our world.

Through our witness, our actions to aid our community, and through speaking the truth in love, we can offer those living in our unclean world the cleansing water of the gospel. From our eternal High Priest, Jesus, we have an eternal supply of the water of cleansing. Let us put it to use for our own cleansing and that of those around us.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Let my mouth be full of your praise and your glory all the day long. — Psalm 71.8

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Numbers 19 (Listen – 3:39)
Psalm 56-57 (Listen – 3:11)

Read more about Artful Prayers
One of the reasons that the psalms are so engaging to any reader of God’s Word is that they are works of art.

Read more about A High Priest Like No Other
Our great high priest Jesus has provided each of us with access to God’s throne of grace in any time of need.

Artful Prayers

Psalm 57.1, 4
Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me,
   for in you I take refuge.
I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings
   until the disaster has passed.

I am in the midst of lions;
   I am forced to dwell among ravenous beasts—
men whose teeth are spears and arrows,
   whose tongues are sharp swords.

Reflection: Artful Prayers
By John Tillman

All scripture is “useful for training in righteousness,” but what scripture is—what mode and form of writing it takes—affects how we engage with it.

Lists of legalities in Leviticus may leave us dry. Genealogical records may excite us only when scandalous details grab our attention. Histories of heroes and villains may be thrilling and inspiring, but can often lead us astray if we are foolish enough to think we are always intended to religiously copy the actions and choices of historical figures. The fully flawed and un-idealized humans recorded in scripture show us more of their sins than their virtues. When rightly read, the lives of even heroes like David are perhaps more cautionary than they are aspirational.

One of the reasons that the psalms are so engaging to any reader of God’s Word is that they are works of art and carry with them the inherent timelessness that great artworks possess. In the psalms, we see with the eyes of those viewing a play, hearing a song, gazing into a painting.  We are here to enter the lived emotion of the artists who bared their souls to God in prayers that were always intended to be performed.

The psalms are not merely a private diary of rants and ravings to God, they are intended for an audience of humans. Some are written “to the director of music,” to be performed chorally. Some are “maskils,” instructive, pedagogical poetry that is intended to teach a lesson. Some are “songs of ascents,” to be sung as one climbed the Temple mount to worship. Psalms are intended for us to see them, hear them, perform them, and to participate emotionally with them. Psalms are intimate in the same way a play performed in a 1200 seat theatre is intimate.

In the psalms, we aren’t going to be told what to do in the office today when someone insults us. But we can see the inner emotional reality of someone whose friends were betrayed to death and who is now hiding in a cave. We won’t get three practical points about how to tell someone about Jesus, but we will get to see the world’s wonder through the eyes of an artist painting a descriptive thank you to a loving creator.

All art is not scripture. But all art preaches. Many times art preaches more effectively than a sermon.

May we live artfully in the power of the Holy Spirit, creating with our lives a prayer that may be seen, heard, felt, and may cause those viewing it to join tearfully in our sufferings, and joyfully in our celebrations.

Prayer: The Request for Presence
Show me your marvelous loving-kindness, O Savior of those who take refuge at your right hand from those who rise up against them. Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me under the shadow of your wings. — Psalm 17.7-8

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 19 (Listen – 3:39)
Psalm 56-57 (Listen – 3:11)

This Weekend’s Readings
Numbers 20 (Listen – 4:15) Psalm 58-59 (Listen – 3:32)
Numbers 21 (Listen – 5:03) Psalm 60-61 (Listen – 2:27)

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Read more about How to Grow in Prayer
Mastering the art of prayer, like anything else, takes time. The time we give it will be a true measure of its importance to us.

Read more about Prayer, Our Tent of Meeting
For us, prayer is our tent of meeting, where the deepest thirsts of our souls may be satisfied.