The Israelite soldiers who fought the battle with the Midianites must purify themselves before returning to camp. The captives and the plunder must also be purified before being brought into the camp.
Moses gives these instructions to the men, "Anyone who has killed someone or touched someone who was killed must stay outside the camp seven days." (Numbers 31:19a) We learned earlier in the Bible that a person who touched a dead body was rendered ceremonially unclean. These men have blood on their hands from war. These men have touched the slain bodies of their enemies as they fell. In order to protect the people within the camp from potential bloodborne pathogens, it's important for the soldiers to isolate themselves from the congregation for a time.
"On the third and seventh days you must purify yourselves and your captives." (Numbers 31:19b) On the third and seventh days they will purify themselves with the water of cleansing. We studied the recipe for this water in Numbers 19 where the ashes of a whole burnt red heifer were mixed with the ashes of cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet wool. A pinch of these ashes would be placed into a water container with water poured over them and then the mixture would be sprinkled onto the person on the third day and the seventh day.
Any person who has been rendered unclean by a dead body, who does not observe this purification ritual, is to be excommunicated from the congregation of Israel, according to Numbers 19:11-13: "Whoever touches a human corpse will be unclean for seven days. They must purify themselves with water 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. They must be cut off from Israel. Because the water of cleansing has not been sprinkled on them, they are unclean; their uncleanness remains on them." I don't know whether there are any medicinal properties to this special cleansing water. I can't say whether or not it was capable of killing bacteria or viruses but it's difficult to see how it could, considering the unclean persons are to be sprinkled with it and are not to be immersed in it. I think, as we discussed when we studied Chapter 19, that this water has a symbolic purpose. For one thing, it symbolizes cleansing from sin. Sin is what leads to death; we all die because we have all sinned. The person who touches a dead body is to acknowledge that sin is what brings death. Contact with sin (represented here by death) requires cleansing. But man cannot cleanse himself. He needs something from outside himself to clean him up and I believe the various components of the cleansing water represent the sacrifice of Christ which cleanses us of unrighteousness.
The ashes contain blood and we could hardly think about blood without thinking about the blood Christ shed on the cross. The ashes also contain cedar wood which is well known for its permanence: its resistance to infestation by pests and its resistance to decay, perhaps symbolizing the eternal strength of Christ's blood. The blood He shed on the cross over 2,000 years ago is just as capable of saving someone today as it was back then. In addition, some scholars believe the cross Christ was crucified on was made of cedar wood. This is possible since it's likely that the upright beam of the cross was permanently installed in the ground and that Christ carried only the crossbeam to Golgotha. If the large upright poles used for crucifixions remained planted in the ground all the time, the Romans would have had to use a very durable wood that could withstand the elements and be resistant to pests and rot. Scarlet wool is representative of the blood of Christ. A great deal of scarlet yarn was used in the curtains of the tabernacle and in the garments of the high priest. Scarlet yarn was dipped in blood and used to sprinkle various articles for purification. A woman at Jericho, in the book of Judges, was told to tie a scarlet yarn in her window so her household would be saved from the battle because she had helped the Israelites. When Jericho falls to the Israelites only this woman's household will be saved from the judgment of defeat. A scarlet color symbolizes blood and it symbolizes being cleansed by blood and being saved from judgment by blood. The ashes of hyssop are also contained in the cleansing water and hyssop was a substance used to purge the body of impurities in the system. In today's terms we might refer to is as "doing a cleanse". People in our times will drink a particular mixture or go on a juice fast in order to purge their digestive systems. Hyssop was used in the cleansing ceremony of lepers as well, so it symbolizes being made whole and new. Water itself, of course, is always a symbol of cleansing. We wash our hands and bodies to cleanse them of dirt and germs and to feel new and refreshed. All these elements in this paragraph were mixed together for the cleansing water and anyone who came in contact with a dead body was required to be sprinkled with the water on the third and seventh days.
To refuse to be sprinkled was to refuse to admit to being a sinner. To refuse to be sprinkled was to refuse to accept that true cleansing must come from outside a person. Man can't make himself right with God. A person who is covered in dirt can't wipe himself off with dirty hands and make himself clean. Only the Lord, who is completely holy and clean and righteous, can make man clean.
The plunder taken from the Midianites must be purified before it can be brought into the camp. "Then Eleazar the priest said to the soldiers who had gone into battle, 'This is what is required by the law that the Lord gave Moses: Gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin, lead and anything else that can withstand fire must be put through the fire, and then it will be clean. But it must also be purified with the water of cleansing. And whatever cannot withstand fire must be put through that water. On the seventh day wash your clothes and you will be clean. Then you may come into the camp." (Numbers 31:24) Some of these objects have been used in sinful pagan ceremonies by the Midianites. Even the objects that have not been used in heathen rituals have been handled by people who serve idols. A cleansing is necessary, not only for the purpose of killing potentially infectious pathogens but also for the purpose of ceremonial sanctification. These objects have a new home and a new life, so to speak, and a cleansing ritual takes place to reflect the fact that these objects are "starting over" and will be used by the people of the Lord.
We could say that these items are being repurposed. We see and hear a lot about repurposing these days, especially on some of the home and garden shows on TV. People will take old vintage items or scrap materials and make something new out of them. They'll dig objects out of dumpsters or grab objects that have been placed by the curb for garbage pickup and then they'll give these objects a new purpose and a fresh new beginning. The items will no longer be used for their original purpose but for their new purpose. That's what is happening with the plunder the Israelites took from the Midianites. That's also what happens when you and I come to a saving knowledge of the Lord. The Lord repurposes us! He cleans us up and gives us a fresh start. We are no longer servants of sin but servants of righteousness. We have a new purpose in life and a new reason for living. Like an old piece of broken furniture thrown on the scrap heap, the Lord digs us out and cleans us up and remakes us. We are no longer useless and broken but are now whole and new, fit for the kingdom of our God.