Numbers 5:1-10

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Remember, in this section of Numbers, which continues until 10:10, preparations are being made for Israel’s departure from the foot of Mt. Sinai, where the nation had remained for more than a year, and for her march to the Promised Land. So far a census of the nation has been taken to assess Israel’s fighting strength. The camp was organized for movement and rest and the special responsibilities of the Levites who would move the sanctuary were assigned.

We now turn to the purity of the people themselves. Israel is to be a holy people, holy because Yahweh is holy. Her camp where the sanctuary of God is located must be pure because he is there and so efforts are made to address that need, both ceremonially and morally, in the next paragraphs, two of which we will consider this evening.

Text Comment

The first paragraph, vv. 1-4 concerns what is to be done with people who contract ceremonial impurity by means of a skin disease, or involuntary discharges, or by contact with a dead body, all matters first addressed in Leviticus, if you remember.

The particular forms of ritual impurity mentioned here are apparently the more severe forms of ceremonial defilement that took longer to remove. The skin diseases required separation from the community for a time and the removal of the impurity required a ritual. There were single discharges from the sexual organs that produced a ritual impurity that was simple to remove and rendered the person unclean for only a few hours. The ones intended here are probably the longer term discharges that produced impurity until they stopped (perhaps the discharges associated with gonorrhea), were in some cases also contagious, and required a sacrifice to cleanse the affected person. Finally, contact with dead animals rendered a person unclean for a day, but contact with a dead human being rendered him or her unclean for a week. It is the latter that is meant here.

The reason why impure people had to be removed from the camp is explicitly stated: it was because God was dwelling in the midst of them. It is important to remember, in reading these stipulations that strike modern readers as strange and almost cruel, that it is perfectly obvious that these were regulations meant to emphasize holiness before God. Most forms of ceremonial impurity were easy to remove and did not require any separation from the community. The forms of impurity mentioned here were rarer, were the more severe ones and represented an enacted and public demonstration of that purity that was to be the commitment of the entire people. It is a fact that must be faced by all of us that a few people in the church are made to be a public demonstration of the spiritual principles of the kingdom of God in ways that most Christians never are. It is not because they are worse sinners necessarily, but because their particular sin happens to expose them to public notice and because the consequences of their sin are such as everyone can see. We have all seen this and have all thought at the time – if we have Christian blood in our veins at all – “there but for the grace of God go I.” Well, so it was in the ancient church and its system of ritual purity. Only some people, probably only a few, had to suffer more public exposure and their impurity and purification was an enacted lesson for the entire people. Hard as it may be to accept, c’est la vie. So it is even in our day.

It is not entirely clear to modern scholarship what the rationale for impurity was. Why did certain things render a person unclean? Much modern study has been devoted to this question and advances in understanding have been made, but it is definitely not the case that the entire subject is now fully understood. It seems clear that death and life are opposing principles here (menstrual blood or semen are both forces of life, the corpse obviously the embodiment of death). That which belongs to death is inappropriate in the presence of the living God. [Cf. Milgrom, 345-346] It has been argued by some, especially evangelicals, that the principle in these cases is the health of the camp, that people are banished because they may be carriers of disease. STDs such as cause discharges are contagious at least to sexual partners and even contact with a dead body may inadvertently spread disease and, therefore, the one who had touched it needed to remain outside the camp until he was known to be healthy. [Brown, 41] I think that health is very doubtfully the primary principle here. The problem is that, however understood, there is clearly an arbitrariness to these commandments, as there is a certain artificiality in the distinction between clean and unclean foods. That the distinction is arbitrary or artificial suggests that its great point is illustrative rather than intrinsic. For example, the ANE and Israel herself knew a great many other diseases beside skin diseases, diseases that caused the afflicted to look deathly ill and finally proved fatal. But only the skin diseases are a cause of ritual impurity. In the same way there were other conditions that were known to be contagious, but these other diseases did not require quarantine. Or consider the touching of a dead body that any loved one must do in order to prepare a father or mother for burial. Why should such acts of devotion and respect render a person unclean? The fact is what we have here is a selective list that serves a larger, overarching purpose, a purpose that could have served by a list of other conditions just as well. What this means, of course, is that the Hebrews did not think superstitiously about these things, as if touching a dead body gave you cooties or touching human blood somehow invoked some primitive taboo or deleterious magical effect. They knew better. This was a vast symbolic system meant to enforce the seriousness of personal and ecclesiastical holiness. It is interesting, by the way, that the OT never says that any of this ceremonial impurity kept anyone from communion with God in prayer, from the forgiveness of sins, or the blessings of the covenant. This is ceremonial impurity and purity, not the condition of a heart or a life before God.

We have the same thing, by the way, in the New Testament but only in the deeper moral sense of which the OT system was an illustration. In the NT too we read of people being banished from the camp because of the impurity of their lives. We call it church discipline, a practice they observed in the ancient epoch as well, as you know. But we do not any longer embody the principle of purity in these liturgical ways as we no longer have a physical sanctuary of the Lord in our midst. The principle is clear: the Lord’s condescension in choosing to dwell among his people must be matched by their determination to remain a pure people.

By the way, notice the fact that these commandments are not gender specific. They applied to males and females equally. The church should be the one institution in the world in which there is no double standard. The laws of righteousness apply as well to the one sex as to the other.

Notice the three-fold emphasis on Israel’s obedience. The fact is, Israel could attend immediately to the instructions regarding the banishment of unclean persons and she did. The assumption is, of course, that she would continue to treat the unclean this way as they appeared in the community from time to time. It is interesting also that the performance of these regulations required the cooperation of the people. How would anyone know that some of these things had occurred (a repeated discharge or even the touching of a body) unless those involved had acknowledged the same?

The particular offense is specifically that of coming by someone else’s property fraudulently, by whatever means, and often, when accused, denying the offense, even under oath. This passage mirrors the one in Leviticus 6:1-5. Reading Leviticus and other passages in the OT one can come and some scholars have come to the conclusion that the law provided forgiveness only for inadvertent sins, sins committed accidentally and unintentionally and that there was no atonement for intentional sins. Passages like this one, however, make it clear that that was never the idea. Intentional sins, or as they are also called, high-handed or defiant sins, are the sins of apostates. There is no atonement for those sins. Such sins are what the NT calls the sin against the Holy Spirit or the sin unto death. But for the ordinary sins of human frailty, the sins of which Paul speaks in Rom. 7:14-24, the sins that believers are committing all the time to their dismay, there was always forgiveness if there were repentance and faith.

Take note of the point made emphatically here that sins against one’s fellow man are sins against the Lord. All our sins against one another are first and foremost sins against God whose will it is that we should love our neighbor. It is this fact that explains David’s statement to God in Psalm 51, after committing adultery and murder, “against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” He had certainly sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah, but in so sinning he had offended the Almighty. In typical Hebrew hyperbole, the greater sin is spoken of as if it were the only sin.

The sin must be confessed, no doubt at the time the offender made his sacrifice and as he was laying his hands on the head of the animal; no secret restitution to protect one’s reputation is allowed. And there must be actual restitution. The penitent must pay the amount and more that he stole from his brother. The wrong must be put right: it is not enough to say that one is sorry.

There is a Baptist evangelist in England who at his evangelistic campaigns provides bins in which people in his congregations can return stolen goods so that the campaign staff, wherever possible, can return them to their rightful owners. And they collect a lot of stuff! [Brown, 44] The emphasis here, however, is on the thief doing it himself or herself and paying restitution personally. It is not enough simply to give the goods back. The owner has also had stolen their use for some time. He is entitled to more. You defrauded him; you must now, as it were, defraud yourself, suffer loss yourself, to make the matter right. Among the penalties are an added amount that has to be returned and the public acknowledgement that you were the thief.

A new wrinkle in addition to what we have in Leviticus is that if the offended person, the defrauded man is dead when the offender comes to repentance and wants to make restitution, and if the man has no living relatives, the restitution must still be made, but in this case to the priest.

I wonder if in reading these two short paragraphs you realized what a comprehensive picture they paint both of the human condition and of the nature of God’s provision for our salvation.

  1. First, you have the double perspective on sin that you find everywhere in the Bible and in the observation of human life.

Ceremonial impurity was impossible to avoid. It happened to everyone. Its causes were the ordinary actions of human life: sexual activity, menstruation, childbirth, the death of loved ones, illness, and so on. But it was nevertheless impurity, uncleanness that attached to a person as a result of these things and this was the great lesson of this entire system of ceremonial purity. There is, in other words, something structural, inevitable, and inescapable about impurity and uncleanness. That is what all of this demonstrated to the thoughtful Israelite again and again. He was unavoidably dirty. There is an impurity that attaches to human life and there is nothing that anyone can do about that by his or her own efforts. This is, we might say, SIN, sin with a capital “S.” This is sin conceived of as an inescapable feature of human life; sin as a principle within us, part of us and of our lives. We are not talking here about sinful deeds but about the impurity that inexorably attaches to fallen human life.

On the other hand, actual transgressions are considered in vv. 5-10, violations of God’s law that are voluntary, intentional, and entirely avoidable. If the first class of violations consists of ceremonial and unavoidable impurity, this second class consists of the sort of sins that human beings and Christians among them are committing every day: violations of God’s law in thought, word, and deed. These are the sort of sins Christians can and do decide not to commit.

Every thoughtful Christian knows that both dimensions of sin are found in his or her life all the time, the structural kind and the behavioral kind: the systemic impurity of life on the one hand – that something wrong, foul, unclean lies deep within him or her – and ethical failure, specific moral transgressions on the other. Our problem is two-fold: SIN and sins! Both are of great consequence. Indeed, what the modern readers of the OT would be likely to treat as of little consequence – the ceremonial impurity – is actually representative of the most important form of sinfulness, because all the specific moral failures come from the structural impurity of life and are an expression of it. We commit sins because our lives are shot through with SIN. We do impure things because we are impure in our very nature, our lives are impure.

Modern people tend to think that these laws of ritual purity were silly: the primitive thinking of an ancient people. What do such outward, physical things such as skin diseases or bodily discharges have to do with good and evil? Purity is doing good things, impurity is doing bad things. But, of course, it is our culture’s view of purity that is superficial. Our problem is much deeper than the sum of our evil acts, most of which, in any case, go largely unnoticed even by ourselves. The Bible is always reminding us of this. Our problem with sin goes down to the bottom of our hearts. We are sinners by nature. Our hearts are unclean and that is why we do so much that is wrong and fail to do so much that is right and that is why no one in all these thousands of years have been able to eradicate sin from his life no matter how much effort he devotes to the attempt. The leopard cannot change his spots or the Ethiopian his skin. This is what the system of ceremonial impurity was devised to teach the Israelites and impress upon their consciences.

Elder Skrivan was telling me the other day of a conversation he had with a man on an airplane. He happened to have been instrumental in bringing the Dalai Lama to Seattle recently (Elder Skrivan flies so much he is often bumped up to first class; you might ask him why he doesn’t regularly volunteer to exchange his seat with some needy person in coach!). They fell to talking about religion and once he realized Tim was a Christian he said that while he agreed with him about many things, he did not agree about original sin. The man was perceptive enough to realize that it is here where lies the vast gulf that divides biblical Christianity not only from all other forms of Christianity but from all other religions. It is the Bible’s teaching that man is structurally impure and sinful by nature, inescapably so as a result of the Fall, and that because of this structural impurity man is incapable of saving himself. This is what distinguishes the Christian faith as an account of human life and the hope of salvation. Its diagnosis of man’s problem is much more pessimistic than you find in other religions and philosophies. As Isaiah memorably put it:

“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” [64:6]

And because that is man’s moral condition before God the Bible rests salvation, and must rest it, upon divine intervention rather than human effort. Man’s problem is too severe, too intractable for him to solve himself.

It is striking, when we come to the New Testament, as we often recently saw in our studies in Mark’s Gospel, to see Jesus dealing with this very sort of ceremonial impurity in a sovereign and absolutely decisive way and to turn it into a picture of man in sin and his healing into a picture of salvation. No leper could heal himself. His condition was hopeless. He was required to be separated from the rest of society for the rest of his life. But Jesus touched lepers and made them clean. The woman with the issue of blood had been to every doctor she could but none of them had helped her. She too was ostracized from the community. She rendered everyone she came into contact with ceremonially impure. And yet one touch of the Lord’s clothing and she was suddenly and perfectly healthy. The separation from God and man that impurity causes Jesus overcame by purifying the person. He did what the benighted person could not. The entire system of ceremonial impurity and purification was designed to make this clear. Your problems are greater than you can solve. God must solve them for you. But, in order to enjoy God’s presence you must be pure. That brings us to our second point.

  1. Second, you have in these regulations a straightforward emphasis on the principle of holiness.

In order to be in fellowship with God, in order to enjoy his nearness, one must be holy. That is clearly the principle being served by this elaborate system of impurity and purification, sin and atonement. It is the specific rationale reported in v. 3. Moral offense lies at the bottom of man’s problem and that is because God is holy. Those two facts go a long way to explain everything else we read in the Bible. They are the fundamental explanation of human history. These facts explain why divine judgment rests upon this world and why so much misery is constantly being visited upon human beings: the world rings with the divine judgment of man’s unholiness of life. These same facts – the holiness of God and the unholiness of man – explain why salvation is first and foremost in the Bible a matter of the forgiveness of sins. There is that in man that must be done away with before he can be reconciled to God. It is why we are told that the difference between earth and heaven is that in heaven “nothing unclean shall enter.” [Rev. 21:27] It is why Paul tells us that God chose us before the foundation of the world to be holy. Or that we were predestined to be conformed to the image of Jesus. It is to make us pure and holy so that we might live with God that salvation takes the precise form that it does in the Bible: justification and sanctification together, forgiveness and renewal. It is why we are told that those who are in Christ shall no longer sin, by which the Apostle John means that the presence of God’s Spirit in a human heart must and will make holiness, not sin the fundamental, the operative principle of life. It is why, along the way, we are reminded that our relationship with God will wax and wane according to the purity of our lives. As we read in Psalm 66:18: “If I regard iniquity in my heart the Lord will not hear me.”

As anyone can see, our culture, including much of the church, no longer sees holiness as the first and decisive principle of reality. Man’s problems are legion but a lack of holiness does not seem to be among those of first importance. The concern expressed publicly is certainly not man’s estrangement from a holy God whose eyes are too pure to behold iniquity and who is angry with the wicked every day. I know we know this, but do we appreciate how completely holiness has disappeared from the modern Western view of reality?

It is very interesting, for example, that our culture still cares very much about purity and also expresses that concern in outward ways: not skin diseases and bodily discharges as in Israel, but in outward ways nonetheless. We care a great deal as a culture about bodily cleanliness. We spend billions on soaps and shampoos and deodorants. We are the cleanest people who have ever lived! More than that, we care a great deal as a people about pure and clean water and pure and clean air. We are offended at pollution and we are frightened by it. We have advanced these issues with religious zeal. We want polluters drummed out of the community. We want our drugs to be pure down to the parts per million or else. But a culture that has mainstreamed pornography and sexual infidelity obviously is not terribly concerned about purity of heart or purity of life in the sense in which God defines it. We are much, much more concerned about the purity of the earth than about the purity of the human heart, as if impure human hearts are ever going to create a pure world! Alex Rodriquez was recently seen wearing the white clothes that are the uniform of the Kabbalah, the Jewish sect of secret wisdom. The white stands for purity. But the Yankees baseball star has been cheating on his wife and paying little to no attention to his children. Wearing white is purity only in the most superficial and hypocritical sense. A culture that has also mainstreamed impure speech is obviously not concerned about purity as a matter of heart and life before a personal God of holiness. God, in fact, has nothing to do with our concern for purity. Our purity is a political not a theological idea. In Israel God and the presence of God had everything to do with its understanding of impurity and purification. But not in the modern West. There is something genuinely grotesque about the impersonalization and desacralization and detheologizing of purity in modern culture. We can nowadays be zealous for purity without ever actually considering either God or the unholy heart of a human being. We have transferred our concern for purity away from the self, away from the heart, and away from God and his judgment of our lives, to matters of public policy. We have lost touch with the principle that the system of public purity in Israel was intended to teach, enforce, and recommend. God is holy and so if we would live with God we must be holy too. Man cannot escape his nature. Modern man cannot stop being concerned about purity. He will never stop making moral judgments. But he’ll be damned before he will think of purity in reference to God or to his own relationship with God!

Every culture must express its concern for purity in outward ways. One cannot see the heart. But our outward ways of expression no longer even concern the individual human life. No one any longer talks to young people in school about purity. No one in our public culture is concerned about purity as a virtue of the inner life, about being clean in one’s attitudes and thoughts, as well as words and deeds. The structural sins of fallen humanity are hardly ever thought of or mentioned in public.

Young people, let me speak to you about this for a moment. You know how attractive to you is pure, clean water and pure, clean air. You have been camping and have seen a mountain stream and breathed that crisp, fresh air. That is wonderful. But there is something much more wonderful and that is a heart that is pure before God and man. Nothing should matter to you more, nothing holds greater promise for your own happiness and the goodness and fruitfulness of your life than that you be pure within and that you live your life intending to keep your heart pure. Only by walking with God is this possible, but it is possible and it is surpassingly wonderful to have a pure heart. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God!”

  1. Third, and finally, we have here atonement at the center of salvation.

Like it or not, the impure and the sinful get right with God by atonement and only by atonement. The sinner must confess his sin and he must make restitution. But neither are enough to clear his debt before God. For that the guilt offering must be brought to the temple: the “ram with which atonement is made for him.” Now any Christian, of course, understands what those offerings of atonement pointed to: the death of Jesus who, as John puts it (1 Jn 2:2) is the atoning sacrifice for our sins. The blood of bulls and goats could not take away sin; the OT believer knew that, but they pointed to the sacrifice that could: the blood of the Son of God. There is no forgiveness without atonement. That too is demonstrated here. The sin must be paid for. Justice must be served. The man’s own restitution is not that payment. It is simply the form of his repentance and the love of his brother. The offense against God, however, must be satisfied and that is the purpose of the sacrifice of a substitute.

The very requirement of restitution here, that the loss must be repaid by the thief and with added value attached, is an indication that justice is the principle of this system of reconciliation with God. God is just: that is the reason why both the sinner must make restitution and why man can be forgiven only through the sacrifice of the Son of God. We tend to forget how comprehensively justice lies at the bottom of God’s dealings with us. He is a God of love, to be sure, and that is why he saves us; but his justice is such that even his love must bow to its demands.

So perfect is God’s justice, for example, that you and I will pay restitution for the sins we have committed. This is what Paul means when he says that at the judgment you and I will receive what is due us for the things done in the body, whether good or evil. There will be a perfect apportionment of reward even among forgiven sinners: some will have more and some less in heaven. We should not forget this for many reasons, but we should certainly not forget it because it is another demonstration of how demanding is divine justice and how perfect it will always be. Even down to the weighing of the details of life, even in the case of Christians whose sins have been forgiven, still divine justice is making its demands!

But that same justice had still more comprehensively to be served when sins are forgiven and sinners made right with God. The English Congregationalist of the first half of the 20th century, P.T. Forsyth reports the story of a guerrilla leader by the name of Shamel, fighting against the Czarist regime in 1870s Russia.

His was a guerilla group, including not only the fighting men but also their families and their livestock. His organization was his own little universe, with laws fundamental to its own existence. Then one day stealing broke out in his camp and his organization began to fall apart in mutual suspicion. So Shamel laid down the law and announced the penalty. ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ and the penalty was one hundred lashes. Before long the thief was caught. But it was Shamel’s own mother! Now he had the problem of law and love. For the sake of his universe the law must stand; in no society can stealing be treated with indifference. At the same time he loved his mother and could not face the requirements of his own law that she should bear the one hundred lashes. Who could see his own mother bear such a beating? Shamel shut himself in his own tent for three days trying to find his solution and finally came out with his mind made up; his mother, for the sake of the law and for the sake of the whole society, must receive the lashes. How many societies have failed because at this very point they could not hold to the law! But before three blows had fallen Shamel had his real and final solution, his revelation. He removed his mother from her penalty and required that they lay on his own back the full measure of every blow. The price had to be paid in full, but the price was paid by him. His law stood; his love stood. The only possible solution was to receive the punishment in his own person.” [Addison Leitch, Interpreting Basic Theology, cited in D.R. Davis, The House that Jesus Built, 57]

It is an imperfect illustration. God’s justice is not required to be served simply because society would fall apart if it weren’t. There is something intrinsically and eternally right about it. It is part of reality as surely as love is; it is a part of God’s very nature to be just and so to require the punishment of sin. Nevertheless, the point is beautifully made: we had violated the law and deserved punishment; God’s love desired our deliverance from that punishment; but only by the satisfaction of God’s justice could that deliverance occur. So he bore the punishment to secure our forgiveness. No forgiveness without atonement; no salvation without the punishment of sin; and no punishment without a substitute. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! The Christian faith in its utter distinctiveness in Numbers 5:1-10.