Numbers 5 – Separating from Sin
A. Separation from the effects of sin.
1. (1-2) The command to separate the ceremonially unclean.
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Command the children of Israel that they put out of the camp every leper, everyone who has a discharge, and whoever becomes defiled by a corpse.
a. And the Lord spoke to Moses: This is repeated three times in this chapter (also in verse 5 and 11), heading each of three sections. Allen noted at least three important implications from this phrase.
· That Moses was truly a prophet of the Lord.
· The commands God spoke to Moses were not secret revelations, they were meant to be spread throughout the whole community of Israel.
· These words of God were authoritative commands, not suggestions.
b. Command the children of Israel that they put out of the camp: As Israel prepared to march to the Promised Land, they must separate those considered to be ceremonially unclean. This included the leper (Leviticus 13; actually, describing a broad range of skin diseases), those with a discharge (Leviticus 15), and any priest who would touch a dead body, except that of a close relative (Leviticus 21:1). What God commanded in Leviticus now had to be done.
i. “Probably this ordinance gave the first idea of a hospital, where all those who are afflicted with contagious disorders are put into particular wards, under medical treatment.” (Clarke)
ii. Everyone who has a discharge: “It seems likely that only the longer-term discharges, that required a sacrifice to be offered when they cleared up, are meant here.” (Wenham)
iii. Whoever becomes defiled by a corpse: “The ultimate tangible sign of uncleanness in ancient Israel was the corpse. Processes of decay and disease in dead flesh were evident to all. Physical contact with a corpse was a sure mark of uncleanness and quite possibly a source of infection.” (Allen)
c. Put out of the camp: It wasn’t that any of these things made a person or proved them to be a notorious sinner (though that was often wrongly assumed). Rather, it was that leprosy, unclean discharges, and dead bodies were reminders of the effects of sin – from which Israel must separate as they prepared to march towards the Promised Land.
i. We could consider these three sources of uncleanness as an analogy of humanity’s sin nature, inherited from Adam. A leper does not choose leprosy, but inherits it, so our sin nature is not chosen – but inherited from Adam. We choose individual acts of sin, but our sin nature was inherited.
ii. At this stage in Israel’s progression to the Promised Land, they had been organized and ordered by God – now, they would be challenged to become a community that valued purity. God desired to make Israel a “Promised Land people” – and that means a purified, holy people.
2. (3-4) The breadth and reason of the command.
You shall put out both male and female; you shall put them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camps in the midst of which I dwell.” And the children of Israel did so, and put them outside the camp; as the Lord spoke to Moses, so the children of Israel did.
a. You shall put out both male and female: Neither men nor women were to be excluded from this command. Neither perceived sympathy nor perceived superiority could spare someone the effects of sin in the world and our sinful nature.
i. “This does not, of course, mean they were left behind to perish, but that they were not allowed to march in their proper place with the tribes of their people.” (Morgan)
b. In the midst of which I dwell: The great reason for this commanded separation was because God lived in the camp of Israel, so there had to be an effort to separate from sin and its effects.
i. “The essential issue in all laws of purity in Israel was not magic or health or superstition; the great reality was the presence of Yahweh in the camp; there can be no uncleanness where he dwells. The last words of v.3 are dramatic in their presentation: ‘I am dwelling in their midst.’” (Allen)
ii. God is concerned with far more than our individual acts of sin; He demands our sin nature be addressed. Only in Jesus can our sin nature – (the old man) be crucified, and the nature of Jesus (the new man) be given to us, making us new creations. God does not have a relationship of love and fellowship with the old man, but He does with the new man.
iii. To be a “Promised Land person” means that the effects of sin and the fall are, in some way, addressed in your life. Promised Land people are not sinlessly perfect; but they are not openly, obviously, walking in the sin nature – as illustrated by those set outside the camp.
iv. The New Jerusalem – the eventual, ultimate dwelling place of God with His people – will have nothing unclean within (Revelation 21:27).
B. Separation from the damage our sin does.
1. (5-7) The command to make restitution.
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel: ‘When a man or woman commits any sin that men commit in unfaithfulness against the Lord, and that person is guilty, then he shall confess the sin which he has committed. He shall make restitution for his trespass in full, plus one-fifth of it, and give it to the one he has wronged.
a. Commits any sin that men commit in unfaithfulness against the Lord: This probably is directed against the person who makes a contract with another person and is unfaithful to the contract. Their sin is not only against the other person; they have also sinned against the Lord.
b. And that person is guilty: The judges of Israel were to make just, righteous judgments regarding the guilt or innocence of the accused, according to the evidence presented. This deals with the person found guilty.
c. Then he shall confess the sin: The first step in restitution was for the guilty man or woman to admit and agree with their guilt, and to do so before God and the community.
d. He shall make restitution for his trespass in full: In addition to the confession of the sin, the guilty man also had to repay what he had defrauded. The just solution was not to put the guilty man in jail, but to command that he restore what he had taken.
i. Because restitution is commanded, it indicates a case of sinning against another person (such as with theft, Leviticus 5:14-6:7) or in some cases withholding from God that which belongs to Him.
ii. “The practical importance of this law is obvious. Israel had been drawn up in battle array to march towards the promised land. But their unity would be shattered if they were squabbling among themselves and taking God’s name in vain. Through restitution and sacrifice, peace with God and harmony within the nation could be restored.” (Wenham)
e. Plus one-fifth of it: The restitution commanded must include a 20% penalty. The thief had to pay back what they took, and more.
i. “For without restitution, in every possible case, God will not forgive the iniquity of a man’s sin. How can any person in a case of defraud, with his neighbour’s property in his possession, expect to receive mercy from the hand of a just and holy God?” (Clarke)
2. (8) How to make restitution when the victim is dead.
But if the man has no relative to whom restitution may be made for the wrong, the restitution for the wrong must go to the Lord for the priest, in addition to the ram of the atonement with which atonement is made for him.
a. If the man has no relative to whom restitution may be made for the wrong: This assumes that if wrong were done to someone who had died, the guilty party would pay the restitution (what was taken plus 20%) to a relative of the deceased who had suffered the wrong.
i. No relative: “The term for ‘close relative’ is goel, the protector of the family rights, sometimes translated ‘kinsman-redeemer’ (e.g., Ruth 4:3).” (Allen)
b. The restitution for the wrong must go to the Lord: If a surviving relative could not be found to receive the restitution, then the restitution payment must go to the Lord. The payment of restitution was just as important – if not more important – for the guilty one paying it as it was for the victim receiving it.
i. Notably, when it went to the Lord, it was for the priest. The priest received it on behalf of the Lord. “The priest is the Lord’s receiver. Tithes are due to the ministers of Christ ‘that liveth,’ because due to him, and they are in his stead.” (Trapp)
c. In addition to the ram of the atonement: A ram was part of the guilt offering described in Leviticus 5:14 through 6:7.
3. (9-10) The right of every Israelite to partake of the offerings he brought.
Every offering of all the holy things of the children of Israel, which they bring to the priest, shall be his. And every man’s holy things shall be his; whatever any man gives the priest shall be his.’”
a. Every offering of all the holy things of the children of Israel, which they bring to the priest, shall be his: Certain offerings (such as the peace offering of Leviticus 3) were intended to have a portion of the offering (like a good piece of meat) returned to the one who brought the offering. The one who brought the offering and their family could have a fellowship meal before the Lord.
b. And every man’s holy things shall be his: This command reminds of the absolute right the one who brought the offering had to share in such offerings. This was a way to preserve the opportunity for everyone in Israel to have a holy fellowship meal before the Lord. The priest couldn’t take the portion to himself and a king couldn’t tax it away.
i. In the midst of this chapter on the separation from sin, God therefore reminded Israel of the purpose of this separation: fellowship with God. This, ultimately, is the reason to pursue purity: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matthew 5:8).
C. Separation from the suspicion of sin: the law of jealousy.
1. (11-14) The situation calling for the law of jealousy.
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘If any man’s wife goes astray and behaves unfaithfully toward him, and a man lies with her carnally, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and it is concealed that she has defiled herself, and there was no witness against her, nor was she caught—if the spirit of jealousy comes upon him and he becomes jealous of his wife, who has defiled herself—or if the spirit of jealousy comes upon him and he becomes jealous of his wife, although she has not defiled herself;
a. If any man’s wife goes astray and behaves unfaithfully toward him: This unique passage deals with the problem of a spirit of jealousy in a marriage. Part of the foundation for marriage is the expectation that one’s spouse will be romantically and sexually faithful, and there is a justified jealousy that comes from this expectation. However, there may also be unfounded jealousy that can damage a marriage. This passage gave Israel a way to deal with a spirit of jealousy that may or may not be justified.
i. “This law was given partly to deter wives from adulterous practices, and partly to secure wives against the rage of their hard-hearted husbands, who otherwise might upon mere suspicions destroy them, or at least put them away.” (Poole)
b. If the spirit of jealousy comes upon him and he becomes jealous of his wife: Sometimes jealousy in a marriage is revealed to be justified; other times it is found to be false. Either way, God gave Israel a way to dealt with this spirit of jealousy.
i. Sometimes a husband or wife knows by intuition if their spouse has been unfaithful, through interpreting dozens of subtle indications. Yet, this intuition is not infallible – it is sometimes wrong. Accusations of infidelity that can’t be “proven” should be rightly resolved, and God gave Israel this unusual procedure to resolve such matters.
ii. This unusual law is evidence that God does not want couples to live in an on-going state of jealousy. The Lord gave a ceremony to resolve jealous feelings in a marriage, by either proving them or disproving them.
iii. This ceremony only dealt with an adulterous wife and not a husband because for the most part, the Law of Moses was “case law.” It was not meant to anticipate every potential situation, but to give examples that set precedence for other cases. Though not stated, is likely that a similar ceremony would be practiced if a wife became suspicious of a husband’s adultery.
iv. Allen relates a different type of testing to determine if an accused woman had committed adultery among the Babylonians, found in the Code of Hammurabi: “The presumed unfaithful woman was to undergo the ordeal of trial by death by flinging herself into the sacred Euphrates River. If she were guilty, it was presumed she would drown; if innocent, she would survive the ordeal and would be able to return to her husband with no attachment of guilt.” (Allen)
2. (15) The offering to resolve a spirit of jealousy.
Then the man shall bring his wife to the priest. He shall bring the offering required for her, one-tenth of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil on it and put no frankincense on it, because it is a grain offering of jealousy, an offering for remembering, for bringing iniquity to remembrance.
a. Then the man shall bring his wife to the priest: This meant that the husband did not have the right to do as he pleased with his wife. He had to bring his wife to the priest and have the matter resolved by a higher authority. It was a serious, solemn thing to bring before the priest, discouraging groundless or frivolous accusations.
i. This law must be seen considering its alternative in ancient (and sometimes modern) shame and honor cultures. In some such cultures, it would not be unusual for a jealous husband to simply murder his wife in the name of his honor and family honor.
ii. Without doubt, this law saved women who were innocent yet falsely accused from the wrath of a jealous husband.
b. He shall bring the offering required for her: The jealous husband was to bring a certain amount of barley meal, and this grain only – not accompanied by any oil or frankincense, things that customarily accompanied a grain offering.
c. He shall pour no oil on it and put no frankincense on it: There was to be no oil or frankincense, things added to sweeten a typical grain offering. There is nothing sweet about this offering for remembrance, for bringing iniquity to remembrance. This offering was bitter, not sweet, because either a wife would be found guilty of adultery, or a husband found guilty of unfounded suspicion.
d. For bringing iniquity to remembrance: It wasn’t that perhaps the wife committed adultery and didn’t “remember” it. The sacrifice was not for the husband or wife to remember, but for the whole community to remember the terrible nature of either adultery or false accusation.
3. (16-28) The ceremony of the offering to fulfill the law of jealousy.
‘And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the Lord. The priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. Then the priest shall stand the woman before the Lord, uncover the woman’s head, and put the offering for remembering in her hands, which is the grain offering of jealousy. And the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that brings a curse. And the priest shall put her under oath, and say to the woman, “If no man has lain with you, and if you have not gone astray to uncleanness while under your husband’s authority, be free from this bitter water that brings a curse. But if you have gone astray while under your husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has lain with you”—then the priest shall put the woman under the oath of the curse, and he shall say to the woman—“the Lord make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the Lord makes your thigh rot and your belly swell; and may this water that causes the curse go into your stomach, and make your belly swell and your thigh rot.”
Then the woman shall say, “Amen, so be it.”
Then the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall scrape them off into the bitter water. And he shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter her to become bitter. Then the priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy from the woman’s hand, shall wave the offering before the Lord, and bring it to the altar; and the priest shall take a handful of the offering, as its memorial portion, burn it on the altar, and afterward make the woman drink the water. When he has made her drink the water, then it shall be, if she has defiled herself and behaved unfaithfully toward her husband, that the water that brings a curse will enter her and become bitter, and her belly will swell, her thigh will rot, and the woman will become a curse among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself, and is clean, then she shall be free and may conceive children.
a. Take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water: This water was made bitter from the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle; while the woman held the grain offering in her hand (a reminder of fellowship with God), the priest pronounced an oath over the woman.
i. The idea of the phrase uncover the woman’s head in verse 18 is to unbind and “let down” her hair. “The unbinding of the woman’s hair is another hint that she was viewed as unclean. ‘Lepers’ had to let their hair hang loose as a mark of their uncleanness.” (Wenham)
b. The priest shall put her under oath, and say to the woman: In his oath, the priest would solemnly announce that if the woman was innocent of the accusation of adultery, she would be free from this bitter water that brings a curse. But if she was in fact guilty of adultery, she would be under the curse.
i. “The terminology that bitter water brings a curse is problematic. The Hebrew phrase could also be translated ‘the curse-bringing water of bitterness.’ It is not just that the water was bitter tasting but that this water had the potential of bearing with it a bitter curse.” (Allen)
ii. The effect of the curse was to make your thigh (here, a euphemism for the womb) rot and your belly swell.
iii. After the priest said this, the woman had to respond: Amen, so be it. She had to agree that if she was innocent, she deserved vindication; but if guilty, she deserved the punishment of the curse. A verdict of “guilty yet excused” was never in mind. Guilty or innocent, adultery was regarded as sin.
c. The priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall scrape them off into the bitter water: After reading the curse, and hearing the woman’s agreement, the priest would write the oath on a scroll – and scrape the dried ink into the bitter water.
i. The water was made bitter in two ways. First, it contained the dust from the floor of God’s holy tabernacle. Second, it contained the ink from the scroll containing God’s curse upon the sinner. The combination of seeing the holiness of God and the just penalty upon sinners is bitter.
ii. “Early Jewish exegesis likened the drink made from the ashes of the golden calf to the draught administered to suspect women.” (Wenham)
d. The priest shall take the grain offering: After this, the priest offered the grain offering – a picture of fellowship and thanks to God – and the accused woman drank the bitter water.
e. The water that brings a curse will enter her and become bitter: Over time, the judgment of God would be evident. If she came down with some type of internal disease, especially affecting her womb, it would be seen as evidence of her guilt. But if she was free from disease, and continued to bear children, it would be seen as vindication.
i. Notably, if the woman was guilty, her punishment was not in the hand of her husband or even the community. Under the law of jealousy, the punishment of the woman was only in the hand of God. If the woman was innocent, it was known the entire community.
ii. According to Adam Clarke, some Jewish rabbis also said that if the woman was guilty, the same disease would come upon the man she had committed adultery with; but they also said that even if the wife had been guilty, but her husband had been guilty of adultery also, the bitter water would have no effect on her.
iii. This ceremony could only work with some supernatural element involved; drinking water with dust and ink doesn’t normally cause internal disease in only those guilty of adultery. However, the mental stress of knowing your guilt and openly proclaiming the rightness of judgment upon yourself cannot be good for one’s health.
iv. At the very least, because this was a public ceremony, it made the entire community aware of the evil of adultery – and the seriousness of trying to hide your sin. The existence of the ceremony itself was an incentive to faithfulness in marriage, and therefore it was good for the entire nation.
v. Surely, both the holiness of God and the perfection of His word testifies against us. We should be forced to drink a bitter cup that would destroy us – but Jesus drank it for us.
4. (29-31) Conclusion to the law of jealousy.
This is the law of jealousy, when a wife, while under her husband’s authority, goes astray and defiles herself, or when the spirit of jealousy comes upon a man, and he becomes jealous of his wife; then he shall stand the woman before the Lord, and the priest shall execute all this law upon her. Then the man shall be free from iniquity, but that woman shall bear her guilt.
a. This is the law of jealousy: This was a ceremony meant to bring resolution. Either the husband was right or wrong in his jealousy; if his wife had in fact been adulterous, he was right – if she had not been, he was wrong. The issue had to be settled, and this was the way given by God to ancient Israel to settle it.
i. “The very fact of these instructions shows how important it is, in the mind of God, that, in the interest of true national strength, family life should be maintained at its strongest and purest.” (Morgan)
b. The priest shall execute all this law: The effect of this law was to promote faithfulness in marriage and to set marriages free from the dark cloud of suspicion.