The First Stage of Grief (Numbers 19)

“It is better to go to a house of mourning

than to go to a house of feasting,

for death is the destiny of everyone;

the living should take this to heart.” – Ecclesiastes 7:2

This verse used to get on my last nerve.

Why can’t I have fun? Should I feel bad when I’m at a sleepover or a restaurant or just laughing with my friends? Should I go to random funerals then, because it’s “better”?

I’m being dramatic, but still. I want to avoid mourning as much as possible. Why should I have to dwell on death?

Thankfully, it’s 2020, and although death pops up on our TV screens and inbox newsletters and Facebook feeds, there’s a lot less ritual surrounding it now than in the Israelites’ days.

And like lots of the instructions given in the Bible so far (Numbers especially), the after-death purification ritual was a lot of work.

A heifer was sacrificed and burned, and its ashes were mixed with “the water of cleansing” (verse 9). This water was used to purify anyone who touched a dead body, no matter how the person had died (verses 14-16). If someone died indoors, the water was used to purify the tent and everything inside of it (verse 18).

Finally, after all this, both the person who sprinkled the purification water (he didn’t have to be a priest, interestingly) and the people who had been sprinkled had to bathe and wash their clothes. The next day, they would be clean (verse 21).

And all for what?

In the morning, the bereaved would be purified, but they would still be dealing with a loss. The long march of grieving still lay before them. Why the fanfare? Why the ritual?

Was it to keep them healthy? Perhaps disease could have been passed from the deceased to whoever touched them. Even so, the required bath and laundry should have been sufficient. Why the heifer? Why the ashes and hyssop and sprinkling (verse 18)?

The Bible says it was for cleansing. It says that failing to be purified would defile His tabernacle (verse 13) and would be punished by excommunication (verses 13, 20).

So is the Bible saying that death is unclean? That death defiles, not just physically, but spiritually?

Maybe that seems extreme. Death is a regular part of life. It’s not casual or easy. It breaks us apart and it is a long time before our pieces are put together. But it’s not uncommon. So it’s weird to think of it as defiling.

But God has a whole different perspective on death. It was never part of His plan. When He made planet Earth and placed Adam and Eve on it, way back in Genesis 1, He wasn’t intending for us to die. Nothing living was supposed to die. The trees, the flowers, children, even people who had lived for centuries – they were all supposed to go on living.

But then Eve sinned and then Adam sinned, and death walked in the door immediately after – defiling our entire planet.

It infected it so well that we’re used to it. That the thought of something as simple as a flower never dying doesn’t even compute.

Maybe that’s why the Israelites had to go through the trouble of sprinkling themselves with ashy water. Maybe it’s the same reason God through the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us to spend time in the house of morning and “take this to heart”.

It’s a reminder. Something happened. Something happened and came and messed everything up. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

“You have another home waiting for you.”

But there’s a difference between Ecclesiastes and Numbers. Ecclesiastes 7:2, true to its theme of the miserable nature of life, moans that “death is the destiny of everyone”. And then it kind of moves on.

In Numbers 19, death is acknowledged, just like in Ecclesiastes. There’s no way around it. Death defiles. But the Israelites weren’t just made unclean by death – they were purified from it. They were made clean again.

And that, like so many other ceremonies in this part of the Bible, points above. One day, this blight that’s held our planet captive since that first sin will be destroyed forever. We will be clean. We will be free. Death will no longer be our reality.

That “one day” is not fantasy, it is truth. When Jesus comes back, He’ll purify His people, our tent the earth, and its furnishings from death for the last time. And we’ll go home, not to a destiny of death, but to a new life that will never end.

We’ll learn a new way of living and thinking. Our expectations will be recalibrated. Death won’t be the norm – it’ll be impossible. We’ll never get tired. We’ll never get sick. We’ll never get old. We’ll never say goodbye to someone ever again.

No wonder God wants to remind us of this. No wonder He wants us to take heart. No wonder He wants us to know that there’s something better than all of this.

Remember this, He says. That’s the first stage of grief. Remember that one day, and soon, we’ll never grieve, ever again.

What do you think? What do you think of the purification ritual God describes here? Who do you look forward to seeing one day in heaven?

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