We saw in Musa Sign 2 that the Commands given on Mount Sinai were very exacting. At the end of that article, I invited you to ask yourself (because this is the intent of the Law) if you always keep the Commands or not. If you do not always keep the Law you, as am I, are in serious trouble – Judgment hangs. This is no worry if you always keep the Law, but if you fail to do so what can you do? It was Harun (also called Aaron, brother of Musa), and his descendants who administered sacrifices to address this – and these sacrifices atoned for, or covered, sins.
Harun had two especially important sacrifices that were Signs to understand how Allah would cover sins committed in the breaking of the Law. These were the sacrifices of the Cow and the Two Goats. Harun’s sacrifice of the heifer gives Surah Baqarah its name. But let’s start with the Goats.
The Scapegoat and the Day of Atonement
From Musa Sign 1 the Passover was (and still is!) celebrated by Jewish people in memory of their deliverance from Pharaoh. But the Taurat commanded other festivals as well. A particularly important one is the Day of Atonement. Click here to read the full account in the Taurat.
Why were such careful and detailed instructions given for the Day of Atonement? We see how they begin:
The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they approached the LORD. The LORD said to Moses: “Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die. (Leviticus 16:1-2)
What had happened before was that two sons of Harun had died when they rashly entered the Tent where the Presence of the LORD was. But In His Holy presence, their failure to fully keep the Law (as we saw here) resulted in their deaths. Why? In the Tent was the Ark of the Covenant. The Qur’an also mentions this Ark of the Covenant. It says
And (further) their Prophet said to them: “A Sign of his authority is that there shall come to you the Ark of the covenant, with (an assurance) therein of security from your Lord, and the relics left by the family of Moses and the family of Aaron, carried by angels. In this is a symbol for you if ye indeed have faith.” Surah 2:248 (The Cow)
Atonement and the Ark of the Covenant
As it says, this ‘Ark of the Covenant’ was a Sign of authority because the Ark was the symbol of the covenant of the Law of Musa. This Ark held the Stone Tablets with the Ten Commandments, and anyone who failed to keep all the Law – in the presence of this Ark – would die. The first two sons of Harun died when they had entered the Tent. So careful instructions were given, which included the command that there was only one day in the whole year that Harun could enter the Tent – this Day of Atonement. If he entered any other day he too would die. But even on this one day, before Harun could enter the presence of the Ark of the Covenant, he had to
Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household… and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the tablets of the covenant law, so that he will not die. (Leviticus 16:6,13)
So Harun sacrificed a bull to cover, or atone, for his own sins committed against the Law. And then immediately after, Harun performed the remarkable ceremony of the scapegoat.
Ceremony of the Scapegoat
Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the entrance to the tent of meeting. He is to cast lots for the two goats—one lot for the LORD and the other for the scapegoat. Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the LORD and sacrifice it for a sin offering. (Leviticus 16:7-9)
Once the bull was sacrificed for his own sins, Harun would take two goats and cast lots. One goat would be designated as the scapegoat. The other goat was to be sacrificed as a sin offering. Why?
“He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people … In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been. (Leviticus 16:15-16)
And what happened to the scapegoat?
Aaron … shall bring forward the live goat. He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness … The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place… (Leviticus 16:20-22)
The sacrifice and death of the bull was for Harun’s own sin. The sacrifice of the first goat was for the sin of the Israelite people. Harun would then place his hands on the head of the living scapegoat and – as a sign – transfer the sins of the people onto the scapegoat. The people then released the goat into the wilderness as a sign that their sins were now far removed. With these sacrifices, their sins were atoned for. This was all done every year on the Day of Atonement.
The Heifer, or Cow, in Baqarah and Taurat
Harun also had other sacrifices to make including the sacrifice of the Heifer (a female cow instead of a male bull). It is this very heifer and its sacrifice which is the reason for the title The Cow for Surah 2. So the Qur’an speaks directly of this animal. Click here to read the account in Qur’an. As you could see, the people were startled and confused when it was commanded that a cow (i.e. a female) be used for this sacrifice and not the usual male animal. And it ends with:
So We said: “Strike the (body) with a piece of the (heifer).” Thus God bringeth the dead to life and showeth you His Signs: Perchance ye may understand. (Surah 2:73 – The Cow)
So this is also considered one of the Signs which we need to pay attention to. But in what way is this Heifer a Sign? We read that it has to do with death and life. “Perchance we may understand” as we study the original instructions in the Taurat given to Harun about this sacrifice. Click here to see the full passage from the Taurat. We see that
the heifer is to be burned—its hide, flesh, blood and intestines. The priest is to take some cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet wool and throw them onto the burning heifer. (Numbers 19:5-6)
Hyssop was a branch from a certain leafy tree. At the Passover when the Israelites were to paint the blood of the Passover lamb on their doors so death would pass over they were commanded to
Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood in the basin and put some of the blood on the … doorframes (Exodus 12:22)
Hyssop was also used with the heifer, and the heifer, hyssop, wool and cedar were burned until there were only ashes left. Then
“A man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and put them in a ceremonially clean place outside the camp. They are to be kept by the Israelite community for use in the water of cleansing; it is for purification from sin. (Numbers 19:9)
Ashes for cleansing
So the ashes were mixed into ‘water of cleansing’. An unclean person would perform his ablutions (ritual washings or Wudhu) to restore cleanliness using this ash mixed in water. But the ashes were not for any uncleanness but for a particular kind.
“Whoever touches a human corpse will be unclean for seven days. They must purify themselves with the water (mixed with the ashes of the heifer) on the third day and on the seventh day; then they will be clean. But if they do not purify themselves on the third and seventh days, they will not be clean. If they fail to purify themselves after touching a human corpse, they defile the LORD’s tabernacle. (Numbers 19:11-13)
So these ashes, mixed with water, were for wudhu (i.e. ablutions) when someone was unclean from touching a dead body. But why would touching a dead body result in such severe uncleanness? Think about it! Adam had been made mortal because of his disobedience, and all his children (you and me!) as well. Thus death is unclean because it is a consequence of sin – it is associated with the uncleanness of sin. Someone touching a dead body would then also become unclean. But these ashes were a Sign – that would wash away this uncleanness. The unclean person, dead in his ‘uncleanness’, would find ‘life’ in the cleansing from ablutions with the Hiefer ashes.
Why a heifer?
But why was a female animal used and not a male? No direct explanation is given but we can reason from the scriptures. Throughout the Taurat and the Zaboor (and all other scriptures), Allah reveals himself as a ‘He’ – in the male gender. And the Israelite nation is spoken of collectively as a ‘she’ – in the female gender. As in marital man-woman relationships, Allah led and his followers responded. But the initiative was always with Allah. He initiated the command to Ibrahim to sacrifice his son; He initiated the given of the Commandments on Tablets; He initiated the judgement of Noah, etc. It was never a human’s (prophet or otherwise) idea to begin with – his followers merely submitted to His leading.
The ashes of the Heifer were to meet a human need – that of uncleanness. Thus to be a proper Sign of a human need, the animal that was offered was female. This uncleanness points to the shame we feel when we sin, not the guilt that we have before Allah. When I sin, not only have I broken the Law and am guilty before the Judge, but I also feel shame and regret. How does Allah provide for our shame?
First of all, Allah provided a covering of clothes for us. The first humans received clothes of skin to cover their nakedness and shame. And the Children of Adam ever since have always covered themselves with clothing – in fact, it is so natural to do so that we rarely stop to ask ‘why?’. These ablutions with cleansing water were another way we could feel ‘clean’ from the things that contaminate us. The goal of the Heifer was to cleanse us.
Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water (Hebrews 10:22)
What about other sacrifices?
Conversely, the sacrifice of the male goats on the Day of Atonement was primarily for Allah so a male animal was used. With the Sign of the Ten Commandments, we noted that the penalty for disobedience was clearly and repeatedly specified as death (click here to check the passages). Allah was (and is!) Judge and as Judge demanded death. The death of the male bull first met Allah’s requirement that death be paid for Aaron’s sin. Then the death of the first male goat met Allah’s requirement that death pays for the sins of the Israelites. Then the sins of the Israelite community could symbolically be placed on the scapegoat by Harun, and as the scapegoat was released into the wilderness it was a sign that the sins of the community were released.
These sacrifices were celebrated by Harun and his descendants for over one thousand years. Throughout the history of the Israelites in the land given to them; when Dawood (or Dawud) became King and his sons also ruled; when the many prophets with messages warning against evil came; even through the life of Isa al Masih (PBUH) these sacrifices were performed to meet these needs.
So with these last Signs of Musa and Harun, the messages of the Taurat were coming to a close. Soon successor prophets would come and the Zabur would continue the messages from Allah. But first, there was one final message in the Taurat. The prophet Musa (pbuh) was going to look into the future, to the coming of a Prophet, as well as look to future blessings and curses on the descendants of Israel. These we look at in our last studies in the Taurat.