Numbers 15 – Various Laws and Provisions
A. Grain, drink, and wave offerings.
1. (1-5) The sacrifice of a lamb to be accompanied with grain and wine.
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When you have come into the land you are to inhabit, which I am giving to you, and you make an offering by fire to the LORD, a burnt offering or a sacrifice, to fulfill a vow or as a freewill offering or in your appointed feasts, to make a sweet aroma to the LORD, from the herd or the flock, then he who presents his offering to the LORD shall bring a grain offering of one-tenth of an ephah of fine flour mixed with one-fourth of a hin of oil; and one-fourth of a hin of wine as a drink offering you shall prepare with the burnt offering or the sacrifice, for each lamb.
a. Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: Israel was at one of the lowest points in its history. They had just rebelliously rejected God’s promise to bring the nation into Canaan. God sentenced them to wander in the wilderness for 38 years until the unbelieving generation had perished in the wilderness and a new generation of faith could take the Promised Land. Yet, immediately after this stinging rebellion and the chastisement from the LORD, Israel received valuable examples of God’s mercy, care, and help to Israel.
i. The style of Numbers 15 is like many passages of the first ten chapters of Numbers. There is a sense in which this chapter takes the disobedient, unbelieving people of Numbers 14 and makes a new start with them from the beginning. Starting over means the whole process will take much longer. “Although much has happened, nothing has happened. The land still awaits the people, but the people must now wait for the land.” (Allen)
b. When you have come into the land: God cared for Israel. These were commands that could only be fulfilled in the Promised Land. These laws had the built-in promise that God would lead them there and would not leave them in the wilderness forever.
i. God said, When you have come into the land you are to inhabit, which I am giving to you. He said, when you come into the land, and not if you come into the land. God had not and would not give up on Israel. Many a believer under the rod of God’s correction has felt abandoned by God as if the LORD had given up on them, but God is always near to the believer under correction.
c. And you make an offering by fire to the LORD, a burnt offering or a sacrifice: God’s mercy to Israel is seen in these instructions for offerings to cover sin and to express gratitude. Israel, at their point of failure, needed to be reminded of sacrificial atonement, and their need to give thanks.
i. Many people think that the command to bring grain, oil, and wine with the burnt offering of a lamb was a way to express thanksgiving. After the tragic unbelief and judgments of chapter 14, Israel still needed to think about showing gratitude to God for His goodness to them.
ii. According to Allen, fine flour was the food of luxury, used in “dainty cooking” (Ezekiel 16:13) and fit for royalty (1 Kings 4:22).
iii. One-tenth of an ephah was about two quarts (two liters), and one-fourth of a hin was about one quart (one liter).
2. (6-7) The sacrifice of a ram to be accompanied with grain and wine.
Or for a ram you shall prepare as a grain offering two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with one-third of a hin of oil; and as a drink offering you shall offer one-third of a hin of wine as a sweet aroma to the LORD.
a. For a ram you shall prepare as a grain offering: When Israel came into the land, the offering of a ram was also to include a grain offering made with flour, oil, and wine. These were required in larger measure than with the sacrifice of a lamb (Numbers 15:1-5).
b. A sweet aroma to the LORD: This phrase is repeated for the sacrifice of the lamb, the ram, and the bull. In Leviticus, this phrase is repeated often as a description of a pleasing or “successful” sacrifice. Sacrifice performed as God commanded (here including flour, oil, and wine) pleased God as a sweet aroma pleases the senses. The Bible specifically tells us that Jesus Christ fulfilled this sacrifice with His own offering, perfectly pleasing God in laying down His life at the cross: As Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma. (Ephesians 5:2)
i. The ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ to come would be perfectly sweet and pleasing to God, and therefore be offered once-for-all (Hebrews 7:27, Hebrews 9:12, Hebrews 10:10).
3. (8-10) The sacrifice of a bull to be accompanied with grain and wine.
And when you prepare a young bull as a burnt offering, or as a sacrifice to fulfill a vow, or as a peace offering to the LORD, then shall be offered with the young bull a grain offering of three-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with half a hin of oil; and you shall bring as the drink offering half a hin of wine as an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the LORD.
a. When you prepare a young bull as a burnt offering: When Israel came into the land, the offering of a bull (made to fulfill a vow or as a peace offering) was also to include a grain offering.
b. Fine flour mixed with half a hin of oil: The offering of a lamb required a one-tenth measure of flour, a ram required two-tenths, and a bull required three-tenths. If one takes the flour, oil, and wine of the grain offering to speak of joy and gratitude, this points to a principle: the greater our offering, the more joy and gratitude we should bring with it.
4. (11-16) The universal character of these laws.
‘Thus it shall be done for each young bull, for each ram, or for each lamb or young goat. According to the number that you prepare, so you shall do with everyone according to their number. All who are native-born shall do these things in this manner, in presenting an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the LORD. And if a stranger dwells with you, or whoever is among you throughout your generations, and would present an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the LORD, just as you do, so shall he do. One ordinance shall be for you of the assembly and for the stranger who dwells with you, an ordinance forever throughout your generations; as you are, so shall the stranger be before the LORD. One law and one custom shall be for you and for the stranger who dwells with you.’”
a. Thus it shall be done for each: Everyone who made a sacrifice had to bring it with the thanksgiving of grain and the joy of wine. God did not want reluctant, complaining people to bring sacrifices to Him. If one could not serve the LORD with gladness (Psalm 100:2), then God didn’t want his service at all.
b. For you…and for the stranger who dwells with you: It was expected that those from other nations who lived in Israel (the stranger) would worship the LORD and offer sacrifices to Him. These laws of sacrifice were for all who brought sacrifices, and not the native-born only.
i. The stranger who lived among Israel was invited to worship the God of Israel according to God’s command. The worship of strange and pagan gods was forbidden. “We shall see the absolute necessity of having but one form of worship in the land…. no others could be tolerated, because they were idolatrous. All strangers—all that came to sojourn in the land, were required to conform to it; and it was right that those who did conform to it should have equal rights and privileges with the Hebrews themselves.” (Clarke)
ii. Even the reference to the native-born was a promise that they would come into Canaan and live there for generations.
5. (17-21) A heave offering of thanksgiving to the LORD.
Again the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When you come into the land to which I bring you, then it will be, when you eat of the bread of the land, that you shall offer up a heave offering to the LORD. You shall offer up a cake of the first of your ground meal as a heave offering; as a heave offering of the threshing floor, so shall you offer it up. Of the first of your ground meal you shall give to the LORD a heave offering throughout your generations.
a. When you come into the land to which I bring you: Once again, immediately after the failure to enter Canaan by faith, God gave Israel laws that were to be obeyed when you come into the land. God did not question if they would live in Canaan, and only spoke of when.
b. Then it will be: This set their minds forward to the promise. Even if a child of God isn’t walking in the richness of God’s promises now, they need to set their mind on heavenly places. Ephesians 2:6 says God has raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus – even if it doesn’t feel like it now, set your mind on those heavenly places!
c. A heave offering of the threshing floor: Exodus 29:27-28 and Leviticus 10:14 speak of a heave offering of sacrificial meat. Here, as in Leviticus 7:14, the heave offering is made with grain (a cake of the first of your ground meal…a heave offering of the threshing floor).
i. Most commentators understand the first of your ground meal to be a portion of dough made from the first harvest of the season. Each household in Israel brought a cake of the first of its ground meal as a thanksgiving and firstfruits offering. Paul referred to this custom in Romans 11:16.
ii. “Even the most seemingly mundane daily practice of kneading dough for making bread was to be a time of worship and celebration of God’s benevolence and faithfulness.” (Cole)
iii. “After the fall of the second temple this custom was still maintained: pious Jews would throw a handful of the dough into the fire as a sort of mini-sacrifice, thereby making every hearth an altar and every kitchen a house of God.” (Wenham)
iv. “The raising of the first cake of coarse grain is similar to the custom today in small businesses to frame the first dollar. The difference is potent as well; the cake was raised in gratitude to the LORD; such is less common in the framed dollar bill.” (Allen)
B. Remedies for sin.
1. (22-29) Addressing unintentional sin, both for the nation and for individuals.
‘If you sin unintentionally, and do not observe all these commandments which the LORD has spoken to Moses—all that the LORD has commanded you by the hand of Moses, from the day the LORD gave commandment and onward throughout your generations—then it will be, if it is unintentionally committed, without the knowledge of the congregation, that the whole congregation shall offer one young bull as a burnt offering, as a sweet aroma to the LORD, with its grain offering and its drink offering, according to the ordinance, and one kid of the goats as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement for the whole congregation of the children of Israel, and it shall be forgiven them, for it was unintentional; they shall bring their offering, an offering made by fire to the LORD, and their sin offering before the LORD, for their unintended sin. It shall be forgiven the whole congregation of the children of Israel and the stranger who dwells among them, because all the people did it unintentionally.
‘And if a person sins unintentionally, then he shall bring a female goat in its first year as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement for the person who sins unintentionally, when he sins unintentionally before the LORD, to make atonement for him; and it shall be forgiven him. You shall have one law for him who sins unintentionally, for him who is native-born among the children of Israel and for the stranger who dwells among them.
a. If you sin unintentionally: Significantly, the Bible talks about sins unintentionally committed. It is often thought that if an action is unintentional, it cannot be a sin. But many of the worst sins are committed with the best of intentions. Good intentions don’t excuse a sinful result.
i. Throughout history, many atrocities and much terror has come from those dedicated to honorable causes. One of the stated goals of communism is to establish a just, fair economic system where everyone works according to his ability and receives according to his need. Despite these good intentions, the goals of communism were used to justify the murder of tens of millions of people in the 20th century – perhaps up to 100 million.
ii. Among God’s people, there are many gossips, many talebearers, and many divisive people who will claim the best of intentions. Even if they mean well, they still may be in serious sin. The same applies to many other sins we may be ready to ignore or think lightly of because we think that good intentions excuse sin. A sacrifice for those who sin unintentionally shows that good intentions do not excuse sin.
b. That the whole congregation shall offer one young bull as a burnt offering: Unintentional sins needed a blood atonement. A young bull had to be sacrificed when the nation was guilty, and a female goat had to be sacrificed when an individual was guilty.
c. You shall have one law for him who sins unintentionally: There was to be no exception. Sin is sin, and must be accounted as such, even if the motive seems to be good.
i. For the stranger: “As in the earlier legislation of Numbers 13-16, the efficaciousness of the ritual act was extended to the resident alien as well as the native Israelite, for the community of faith is viewed holistically and harmoniously rather than ethnically divided.” (Cole)
2. (30-31) Addressing presumptuous sin.
‘But the person who does anything presumptuously, whether he is native-born or a stranger, that one brings reproach on the LORD, and he shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD, and has broken His commandment, that person shall be completely cut off; his guilt shall be upon him.’”
a. But the person who does anything presumptuously: Literally, to sin presumptuously means to sin “with a high hand.” This speaks of an open, unashamed rebellion against God, the law of Moses, and the nation.
i. “The sinner with a high hand feels no guilt; therefore the offense is not sacrificially expiable. The one who sins defiantly may not feel the guilt of his violation, but he is nonetheless guilty before God and man.” (Cole)
b. That person shall be completely cut off; his guilt shall be upon him: Such sin was not to be tolerated in Israel. This command was a judicial and cultural tool for addressing such sins and confirming that such arrogant defiance of public morality would not be rewarded.
i. This contrasts with modern culture where notorious, defiant sinners are sometimes rewarded with fame and fortune. Instead of his guilt shall be upon him, our culture often puts guilt on anyone who would judge or confront defiant sinners and their works.
3. (32-36) The execution of a Sabbath violator.
Now while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron, and to all the congregation. They put him under guard, because it had not been explained what should be done to him. Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man must surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” So, as the LORD commanded Moses, all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him with stones, and he died.
a. They found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day: This was an immediate example of dealing with someone who sinned presumptuously (Numbers 15:30-31). All Israel knew the Sabbath law, but perhaps this man thought himself a courageous social reformer, trying by his example to free the nation from the bondage of heaven’s law.
i. “It seems likely that the following story of the sabbath breaker illustrates what sinning with a high hand means.” (Wenham)
ii. “The point of the story is that Sabbath breaking is the act of a raised fist in defiance of the Lord; the offense strikes at the very center of Israel’s responsibility before the Lord. By his action (Numbers 15:32) this man was thumbing his nose at God.” (Allen)
b. The man must surely be put to death: God commanded the execution of this presumptuous sinner, that all might fear. This was so all would know that the social order and law of God are more important than any individual’s “right” to attack or destroy that social order or law of God.
i. Stoned him: “Stoning was prescribed, a punishment which involved a large body of people, the congregation (Numbers 15:36), thereby symbolizing the community’s rejection of this offence. Since the sabbath was a sign of the covenant, its desecration was particularly serious (Deuteronomy 5:15).” (Wenham)
4. (37-41) Reminders for a holy people.
Again the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel: Tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a blue thread in the tassels of the corners. And you shall have the tassel, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the LORD and do them, and that you may not follow the harlotry to which your own heart and your own eyes are inclined, and that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy for your God. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the LORD your God.”
a. Tassels on the corners of their garments and blue thread in the tassels of the corners: These were intended to remind Israel to Whom they belonged; they were God’s people. Such reminders can be effective in helping to keep believers from sin and making believers mindful of God.
i. Perhaps a blue thread was commanded because the ark of the covenant was covered with a blue cloth, blue curtains adorned the tabernacle, and blue was part of the high priest’s garments. Blue, as a color, was associated with holy reminders.
ii. “That cord of blue was a symbol of the deepest truth in their national life, that they were under the direct government of heaven. Every time the eye rested on that simple sign the heart was to be reminded of the sublime truth.” (Morgan)
iii. “This was practised by the Pharisees in Christ’s time, who are noted for making their borders larger than ordinary, Matthew 23:5; and by Christ himself, as may [be] gathered from Luke 8:44.” (Poole)
b. That you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the LORD and do them: We might imagine an Israelite being tempted to sin, and then catching sight of his own distinctive clothing. These could remind him of who he is and remind him that others can see who he is: a child of God, and not a child of the sin he is contemplating.
i. In this sense, Christian-themed clothing, jewelry, and other items can serve a purpose. Such things can remind us of who we are and provide a kind of accountability for our conduct.
ii. However, man’s instinctive pride always has a way of perverting such good and holy commands of God. Jesus directly rebuked the abuse of this command among the religious elite, speaking of how they would enlarge the borders of their garments (Matthew 23:5), making the tasseled area as conspicuous as possible, as a proud display of their “holiness.” The same can also be said of today’s Christian themed clothing and jewelry; it can also be abused in the same self-righteous, hypocritical manner.
iii. I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: “Though I am justly displeased with you for your frequent and horrid rebellions, for which also I will keep you forty years in the wilderness, yet I will not utterly cast you off, but will continue to be your God, to preserve and provide for you there, and after that time to bring you into Canaan.” (Poole)