Numbers 9 – Keeping the Passover; the Cloud by Day and Fire by Night
A. Keeping the Passover.
1. (1-5) The first Passover in the wilderness.
Now the LORD spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying: “Let the children of Israel keep the Passover at its appointed time. On the fourteenth day of this month, at twilight, you shall keep it at its appointed time. According to all its rites and ceremonies you shall keep it.” So Moses told the children of Israel that they should keep the Passover. And they kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month, at twilight, in the Wilderness of Sinai; according to all that the LORD commanded Moses, so the children of Israel did.
a. Let the children of Israel keep the Passover at its appointed time: Israel celebrated the first Passover as they left Egypt (Exodus 12). Now, one year later (the first month of the second year), God commanded Israel to keep the Passover a second time.
i. It was not a surprise for Israel to hear that Passover must be kept every year. When Passover was first instituted, God told Israel they were to keep it throughout their generations (Exodus 12:14).
ii. The tabernacle was finished on the first day of the first month of the second year (Exodus 40:2, 17). On this day the cloud of glory covered the tabernacle (Numbers 9:15-23). About this time the tribal leaders brought their gifts (Numbers 7) and the priests were consecrated (Leviticus 8).
iii. “The long stay at the base of Mount Sinai was not a time of inactivity or indolence. It was a time of great activity in celebration of the goodness and mercy of the Lord and in preparation for what was expected to have been the soon triumphal march into the land of Canaan.” (Allen)
b. According to all its rites and ceremonies you shall keep it: Passover reminded Israel of when God “passed over” His people when Egypt’s firstborn were judged in the last plague upon Egypt.
i. The blood of the lamb, applied to the door posts of the home, was seen by the angel of God’s judgment – and seeing the blood, the angel “passed over” and spared the home covered by the blood of a lamb. Passover was kept as a continual reminder of this occasion of judgment passed over, and of the deliverance from slavery that followed.
ii. “Exactly how the regulations in Exodus 12 were carried out is not stated: possibly the blood was smeared on the tents instead of on the lintels and doorposts.” (Wenham)
iii. Jesus fulfilled the Passover sacrifice by His death on the cross (1 Corinthians 5:7). The covering of His blood causes the judgment of God to “pass over” His people. We are commanded to continually remember our occasion of being spared judgment and the deliverance that followed, by remembering Jesus’ work on the cross through the Lord’s Supper.
c. So the children of Israel did: Israel was properly obedient to God. We don’t find any significant disobedience against God or distrust of Him on Israel’s part in the first 10 chapters of Numbers, while they camped at Mount Sinai. This makes their distrust of God and rebellion against Him even more shocking and without excuse from Numbers 11 on.
2. (6-14) The case of the unclean men: Should they keep Passover?
Now there were certain men who were defiled by a human corpse, so that they could not keep the Passover on that day; and they came before Moses and Aaron that day. And those men said to him, “We became defiled by a human corpse. Why are we kept from presenting the offering of the LORD at its appointed time among the children of Israel?”
And Moses said to them, “Stand still, that I may hear what the LORD will command concerning you.”
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘If anyone of you or your posterity is unclean because of a corpse, or is far away on a journey, he may still keep the LORD’s Passover. On the fourteenth day of the second month, at twilight, they may keep it. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They shall leave none of it until morning, nor break one of its bones. According to all the ordinances of the Passover they shall keep it. But the man who is clean and is not on a journey, and ceases to keep the Passover, that same person shall be cut off from among his people, because he did not bring the offering of the LORD at its appointed time; that man shall bear his sin.
‘And if a stranger dwells among you, and would keep the LORD’s Passover, he must do so according to the rite of the Passover and according to its ceremony; you shall have one ordinance, both for the stranger and the native of the land.’”
a. There were certain men who were defiled by a human corpse, so that they could not keep the Passover: This was an attempt to resolve two principles. The first principle was that every Israelite must be included in Passover. The second principle was that no one in a state of ritual uncleanness could take part in the normal religious life of the community.
i. These outward, external symbols of uncleanness were important and could not be ignored. These outward signs of uncleanness reminded Israel of their inward uncleanness. “The concept of ritual impurity is so foreign to modern thinking as to be nearly unintelligible to most readers…. The best way to think of the notion of ‘uncleanness’ is as a teaching device to remind the people of Israel of the holiness of God.” (Allen)
ii. “It is probable that the defilement mentioned here was occasioned by assisting at the burial of some person—a work both of necessity and mercy.” (Clarke)
iii. These certain men were probably not the only ones in Israel who had defiled themselves right before Passover. These men wanted to keep the Passover and were bold enough to ask Moses (and to ask God through Moses) for an exception to the previous command (as Leviticus 7:20, 22:3).
b. Stand still, that I may hear what the LORD will command: Moses needed God’s wisdom to resolve these principles. It wasn’t good to exclude people from keeping Passover. It also wasn’t good to disrespect God’s holiness by allowing the ceremonially unclean to participate. To this point, God had not spoken on this issue, and therefore Moses needed to seek God about it.
c. He may still keep the LORD’s Passover: God told Moses that those unclean at Passover (and those far away on a journey) could still keep the feast, but they must do it one month later (on the fourteenth day of the second month). This solution made keeping the Passover possible, yet it respected God’s holiness and the principles of ritual purity.
i. God made provision for the unclean to remember God’s spared judgment and deliverance. The unclean were among those who most needed to remember what God did for His people through Passover.
ii. “Historically, the application of this second month alternative Passover occurred during the reign of Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 30:1-27).” (Cole)
d. But the man who is clean and is not on a journey: However, those among Israel who were clean and not traveling must keep Passover or be cut off from among his people. The punishment for not keeping Passover was severe: That man shall bear his sin, instead of having their sin borne by the Passover lamb.
i. “Thus, both participation in the passover when unclean and abstention for no good reason are equally dangerous.” (Wenham)
ii. In the same way, we must partake of Jesus, or we will bear our own sin. Jesus said: Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you…. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. (John 6:53, 56)
e. And if a stranger dwells among you: Additionally, it didn’t matter what bloodline or ethnic group the person came from. Even the stranger among Israel could and must keep the Passover, or they would be cut off. A Jew with the purest bloodlines would be cut off if they neglected Passover, and a Gentile stranger would be accepted if they kept God’s Passover.
i. However, the Gentile visitor had to come under the law of the God of Israel. Exodus 12:48 required that those from outside Israel could keep Passover if they were first circumcised.
ii. “The inclusion of the alien in covenantal legislation such as this reminds us of God’s great grace and also of his determined purpose to reach out through his people to all peoples.” (Allen)
f. He must do so according to the rite of the Passover and according to its ceremony: The “second Passover” had to be kept according to the same rite and ceremony as the normal feast. The meal and the ritual had to be the same.
i. “Rabbi Gamaliel, the teacher of Saul…is quoted as saying that if anyone does not eat the lamb, the unleavened bread, and the bitter herbs, he has not kept the Passover. He built his words on Numbers 9:11.” (Allen)
ii. This command suggested three points to Charles Spurgeon:
· Spiritually speaking, we are to feed upon Jesus Christ.
· We are to feed upon the whole of Christ: all His person, all His offices, all His teaching, all His warnings, all His commands, all His work.
· We receive Christ in community, in union with others.
B. The cloud and the fire guide Israel.
1. (15) The presence of God with Israel is displayed by the cloud and fire.
Now on the day that the tabernacle was raised up, the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the Testimony; from evening until morning it was above the tabernacle like the appearance of fire.
a. Now on the day that the tabernacle was raised up: When the tabernacle was originally built (raised up), God blessed it by showing His presence in the form of the cloud by day and the fire by night (Exodus 40:34-38).
b. The cloud covered the tabernacle: This cloud of God’s Shekinah glory was evident at different times in Israel’s history. For example, when Solomon built the temple, the cloud of glory filled the temple (1 Kings 8:10-11). When Israel had completely turned away from God, and before the temple was destroyed by conquering Babylonians, the cloud of glory departed (Ezekiel 10:3-4, 18-19).
c. From evening until morning it was above the tabernacle like the appearance of fire: These signs were more than the visible assurance of God’s presence. The cloud by day and the fire by night were also helps and comforts to Israel. The fire at night was a comfort to Israel amid a dark wilderness, and the cloud by day was a shade from the hot wilderness sun.
i. This idea of God’s presence as a protective shade is repeated in other places.
· For You have been a strength to the poor, a strength to the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shade from the heat (Isaiah 25:4).
· The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day (Psalm 121:5-6).
2. (16-23) Guidance by the cloud by day and the fire by night.
So it was always: the cloud covered it by day, and the appearance of fire by night. Whenever the cloud was taken up from above the tabernacle, after that the children of Israel would journey; and in the place where the cloud settled, there the children of Israel would pitch their tents. At the command of the LORD the children of Israel would journey, and at the command of the LORD they would camp; as long as the cloud stayed above the tabernacle they remained encamped. Even when the cloud continued long, many days above the tabernacle, the children of Israel kept the charge of the LORD and did not journey. So it was, when the cloud was above the tabernacle a few days: according to the command of the LORD they would remain encamped, and according to the command of the LORD they would journey. So it was, when the cloud remained only from evening until morning: when the cloud was taken up in the morning, then they would journey; whether by day or by night, whenever the cloud was taken up, they would journey. Whether it was two days, a month, or a year that the cloud remained above the tabernacle, the children of Israel would remain encamped and not journey; but when it was taken up, they would journey. At the command of the LORD they remained encamped, and at the command of the LORD they journeyed; they kept the charge of the LORD, at the command of the LORD by the hand of Moses.
a. So it was always: Though Israel had been organized and ordered by God; cleansed, set apart, and blessed; generous in giving, and walking according to their priesthood, they still had to be guided by God each step of the way to make it to the Promised Land of Canaan. God did not do all those previous things to make them able to march towards the Promised Land without Him, but to make every step in constant dependence on Him.
i. Always: “The text suggests the permanent abiding of the cloud over the camp in the words ‘this is how it continued to be.’ The Hebrew word tamiḏ has the sense of ‘continually,’ ‘incessantly.’” (Allen)
b. Whenever the cloud was taken up from above the tabernacle, after that the children of Israel would journey: When the cloud moved, Israel moved; when the cloud stayed, Israel stayed. They only went where the presence of God led them, and they only stayed where the presence of God stayed.
i. “These were symbols one would not, could not ignore. They were awesome and eerie, unnatural and unexpected, comforting and protective. To relieve the heat of the desert sun, there was a cloud by day. To reverse the cold darkness of the desert night, there was the comforting fire overhead.” (Allen)
ii. “The New Testament also uses cloud imagery to describe the presence of God. Our Lord was overshadowed by the cloud at his transfiguration, and disappeared into a cloud at his ascension (Luke 9:34; Acts 1:9).” (Wenham)
iii. In a similar way, believers must be led by the presence of God. Colossians 3:15 says, let the peace of God rule in your hearts. This means to let the presence of God’s peace be an umpire or a judge in our hearts and lives.
c. Whether it was two days, a month, or a year: The movement of the cloud was unpredictable. God would not allow Israel to be led by routine or tradition. They had to see and respond to the presence of God.
i. “The thrice-repeated refrain sums it up, ‘At the command of the LORD they encamped, and at the command of the LORD they set out’ (Numbers 9:20, 23; cf. Numbers 9:18). The cloud hovering over the tabernacle provided the perfect means of divine guidance: the people had to respond with perfect obedience.” (Wenham)
ii. “No responsibility rested on the people save that of obedience. They were not called on to consider the time or direction of their march, but it was equally true they were not permitted to object or delay. All of which served to keep the fact of the sovereign authority of Jehovah perpetually before them.” (Morgan)
iii. “God chose to keep this people so dependent upon himself, and so submissive to the decisions of his own will, that he would not even give them regular times of marching or resting; they were to do both when and where God saw best.” (Clarke)
iv. “We need to hold the present with a slack hand, so as to be ready to fold our tents and take to the road, if God will. We must not reckon on continuance, nor strike our roots so deep that it needs a hurricane to remove us.” (Maclaren)