Numbers 15:1-41

After the dramatic events described in the past two chapters, the opening of chapter 15 strikes us as an anti-climax. The question is: why put these ceremonial laws here and not after Leviticus 7 or even after Numbers 29 where they would be part of a larger section devoted to similar things? The answer seems to be, as we will see, that this material taken together represents a comment on the preceding events.

Text Comment

“the one” that is, the man or the woman. Remember, there is no distinction made in the sacrificial law. Men and women participated equally.

One of those indications that the covenant with Israel always had in view the rest of the world!

The direct assertion that Israel will enter the Promised Land in v. 2 together with the requirement that large amounts of flour, oil, and wine must accompany the animal sacrifices – which assumes that the people will then live in a land of agricultural plenty – represent a pledge by the Lord that he will not fail to keep his promise to bring his people into Canaan. In the previous verses he had condemned that generation to die in the wilderness and said that they would by no means enter the land, but he had also promised that their children would possess the land. These verses come as an emphatic assurance on that point. That apparently explains the placing of this material immediately after the account of Israel’s rebellion and judgment at Kadesh.

These regulations further indicate that the principles of life in the covenant Yahweh has made with his people have not changed. Sacrifice is still an essential instrument of maintaining the covenant relationship and moral and ritual purity are still required of God’s people.

Interestingly, this is the first time it is made clear in the Law that the animal sacrifices must be accompanied in every case by offerings of flour, oil, and wine. It is certainly possible that they were not so accompanied in the wilderness because there would not have been an adequate supply of those products. [Milgrom, 118] There are references to some such offerings in Leviticus but not in this programmatic way. So what we have here seems to be a set of laws for life in the Promised Land. A handful of each cereal offering was to be burned; the rest went to the priest and it became an important source of his income. [Wenham, 128] It is also to be noted that the larger the animal brought for sacrifice, the greater the other offerings must be. Something of the principle of the tithe here in other words. Giving is to be proportional to one’s wealth.

It is not entirely clear what the significance of these offerings of the field, the tree, and the vine was. Perhaps they represented the entirety of a person’s life offered up to God, given that together with the flocks and herds, the fields, the trees, and the vines represented the entirety of the main agricultural product of Canaan. [Wenham, 128]

Again this regulation anticipates the Israelites’ settlement in the Promised Land. Indeed it seems to be further directed at the Israelite non-farmer. It is not the first of the grain, but the first of the dough made at home that is to be offered to the Lord. The term for offering indicates that this would be given to the priest who would offer it as a sacrifice, keep it for his own use, or allow it to be redeemed for a cash payment.

Now, a long list of specific regulations such as we have just read raises the question: what happens if someone fails to keep these laws in any way?

The great question concerning what follows is what is meant by the Hebrew phrase translated “unintentional.” Other translations of the phrase are “in ignorance” or “inadvertently.” The sense that many have taken from the phrase is that it refers to sins committed accidently, even, in some cases, without the knowledge of the person himself, such as in cases where someone is ceremonially defiled without at first realizing it. I don’t think that is the sense of the term and we will return to this question shortly.

Now, two different types of unintentional sins are mentioned: those committed by the community as a whole, and those committed by individuals. In each case forgiveness and purification are possible through the faithful use of the sacrificial system.

There are two and, so far as the biblical evidence goes, only two types or classes of sins: unintentional sins and defiant sins. For the former there is forgiveness; for the latter there is not.

We will return to this episode shortly. Remember, however, that in the NT, without comment – indicating, I think, that the apostles assumed that the readers of the Bible would understand – execution for religious offenses (such as idolatry, blasphemy, and false prophecy (in addition to moral offenses such as murder and some cases of adultery and rape), that is, the death sentence, has been transformed into excommunication. This is in part because the church and the state no longer have the same relationship as they did in ancient Israel and in part because the nature of the church itself has been changed in its being no longer contained in a single national and racial identity and its being spread throughout the world. In 1 Cor. 5 Paul, for example, cites a text from Deuteronomy that refers to the death penalty but applies it as a command to excommunicate the unrepentant sinner. Of course, that tells us something about how seriously we are to take excommunication. It is, spiritually speaking – that is, in the most important, the eternal sense – a death sentence.

“Prevention is better than [a] cure.” [Wenham, 132] The point is to obey the laws of God in the first place and the tassels were a way to promote the constant recollection of God’s commandments and meditation on them. Blue seems to have been a color associated with deity. It was also associated with royalty. Since the blue dye was extracted from the gland of a particular snail found in shallow waters off the coast of northern Israel and Lebanon and since it took some 12,000 of these snails to obtain 1.4 grams of the dye, it is easily understood why only royalty could afford blue! [Milgrom, 127] The ark, when moved, was wrapped in a blue cloth, the sanctuary curtains were blue, there was blue in the high priest’s uniform, etc. The blue thread reminded an Israelite that he was to be holy because God is holy. Christians have long done a similar thing in the wearing of a cross as a way to remember the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus.

By the way there is evidence in the Gospels that the Lord Jesus himself wore such tassels on hem of his cloak and that it was these tassels that people, such as the woman with the issue of blood, sought to touch so as to be healed. [Matt. 9:20; cf. Morris, ad loc.]

Another tie between this material in chapter 15 and what went before in chapters 13-14 is that the term the NIV translates here “going after” in “going after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes” is the same verb translated “explore” or “spy out” in the previous two chapters.

Now I want to consider from this chapter, full of interesting material as it is, one crucial distinction; a distinction fundamental to a Christian’s self-understanding and his or her understanding of life in the world. I am speaking of the distinction introduced here – though hardly unique to this chapter – between inadvertent or unintentional sins and defiant or high-handed sins. The phrase translated by the NIV “sins defiantly” is literally “sins with an upraised hand.” What is the difference between the two sorts of sins and what is the importance of that difference?

As I mentioned earlier, some descriptions of inadvertent sins in the Law of Moses have led some commentators to think that these sins are only matters of ceremonial defilement contracted accidently. That is what “inadvertent” suggests, is it not? You touch a person without knowing that he is dead, for example, and contract that defilement. However both in Leviticus and here in Numbers it is clear that much more is meant by inadvertent sins than accidental sins, sins committed without realizing it. Rather, inadvertent sins, as one scholar puts it, “are sins of human frailty.” [Davidson] They are “perfectly conscious and voluntary, but they are capable of being redeemed.” [Jacob] In other words, according to these scholars, inadvertent sins are the sins that you and I, as serious Christians, are committing every day! They are most sins; the vast majority of sins.

Proof of this comes in several parts. First, we are explicitly told in v. 23 that such inadvertent sins could be violations of any of the Lord’s commands given through Moses. This is typical of the definition of inadvertent sins in Leviticus. Inadvertent sins could be committed against any and every one of the commandments of God. But it is difficult to imagine very many of those commandments being violated accidentally in the sense that one didn’t even realize that he was committing a sin or doing something that was wrong. Surely we would not claim that it was an accident that we lied, or stole someone else’s property, or gave our minds over to impure thoughts or our body to impure deeds, that we took the Lord’s name in vain, were disrespectful to our parents, and so on.

Second, among the “unintentional” or “inadvertent” sins listed in Leviticus 6 are theft, extortion, and swearing falsely; again, hardly accidental sins. According to Lev. 19:20-22 atonement is provided for the sin of fornication. So fornication is a sin of inadvertence. After all, as we said, there are only two classes of sins. There are sins for which atonement is possible and there are sins for which there is no possibility of atonement. But among the sins for which atonement is possible, such as fornication, are many sins that are perfectly voluntary; sins that certainly involved the exercise of a person’s will. In Numbers 5:5-10 we have reference made to such sins, including sins that may be described in this way: “When a man or woman wrongs another in any way and so is unfaithful to the Lord, that person is guilty and must confess the sin he has committed…” Such sins are, in the nature of the case, inadvertent sins because in their case there is the possibility of atonement. But they are hardly accidents! They are, in fact, most of the sins that people commit day after day, Christians among them.

Third, in the Bible we find all manner of sins being confessed and atoned for through the sacrificial ritual, including David’s premeditated adultery with Bathsheba and his premeditated murder of her husband Uriah. Inadvertent sins, sins that can be atoned for are not usually accidents. If we took “inadvertent” to mean “accidental,” we would be left having to believe that there was no atonement provided in OT sacrificial worship for any really serious sin. But that is not the case at all. Sins of all kinds were confessed and forgiven.

Finally, we have clearly in this chapter a contrast drawn between inadvertent sins and defiant or high-handed sins. That much is explicitly said in vv. 29-31. Given that fact and its place in the context, the account of the Sabbath-breaker certainly should be understood as an illustration of a high-handed sin, the sort of sin just mentioned in the verses leading up to the account of this particular incident. Here is a perfect case of a narrative that will be misunderstood if it is not read in context and with an appreciation of Hebrew narrative artistry. Let me take note of several features of this sin as an illustration of a high-handed sin.

  1. In the total context of the biblical laws concerning Sabbath sanctification, this man did not sin because he was out and about on the Sabbath. Those who saw him were obviously out and about themselves and they were not faulted. So his sin was the violation of the commandment not to work on the Lord’s Day.
  2. What is more, this man was not gathering wood so as to keep his family warm through a cold Sabbath afternoon, as if lighting and stoking a fire to keep warm would have been regarded as work and so forbidden on the Lord’s day, as if Sabbath sanctification required families to shiver in their tents through a long cold Sabbath afternoon. There is nothing to suggest such a thing in the fourth commandment itself or in any of the biblical case law.
  3. That suggests that the man was gathering wood to build a fire so as to perform work, the sort of work that needed a fire. Any Israelite would immediately have understood this to be the case.
  4. And he did this brazenly: fully aware that it was forbidden, indifferent to God’s law, and uncaring of any consequences. This is the act of an apostate, a man who was turning his back on the covenant Yahweh had made with Israel. That is not hard to believe in the larger context. Israel was full of such people as we have seen.

So there are two and only two classes of sins, the sins that are committed in human weakness and the sins that are committed in defiance of God’s grace, God’s law, God’s authority, and God’s judgment. It is interesting to observe that the first class of sins, the sins of inadvertence, are also the sins of unbelievers. You remember that interesting remark of the Apostle Paul.

“Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.”

When you stop to think about it, that is an astonishing statement, not least because elsewhere Paul uses his same past sins to prove that he was a terrible sinner, even the worst of sinners. But it is the fact that there is a great deal of difference between one kind of sin and the other: between sins committed in human weakness or ignorance and sins committed in full knowledge of God’s law and of his grace and uncaring of either. Only people in the church can commit those latter sins but even they must commit them in a spirit of brazen indifference to God.

“On October 22, 1996, in St. Martins-in-the Fields Church in central London, a congregation of some two-hundred people, described the next day by the…British newspaper The Daily Telegraph as ‘admirers,’ gathered to celebrate the life of the famous twentieth-century English novelist Sir Kingsley Amis. The paper described it as ‘a secular service: no hymns or prayers, just a lot of laughter.’ During the service, the late Sir Kingsley’s son, the novelist Martin Amis, told the following story, recalling a conversation his father had with the Russian poet and novelist Yevgeni Yevtushenko. Yevtushenko, perhaps having mistakenly assumed all Englishmen were Christians, asked Amis if it was true that he was an atheist. ‘Well, yes,’ said Sir Kingsley, and then added, ‘But it’s more than that. I hate him.’” [S. Ferguson, The Glory of the Atonement, 429]

Now, ignoring the fact that Amis admitted to hating what he claimed not to exist – in effect, as someone put it, shooting his own atheism in the foot without feeling the pain – that statement about hating God comes closer to the attitude of the one who sins with a high hand. He or she hates God, at least the God who has revealed himself in Holy Scripture. But, still, Amis, who was never a serious Christian, hadn’t yet himself committed a sin of the high hand. You have to have been an Israelite before you can turn your back on what you once were and claimed to be!

Taking all of this together we can say that almost any sin can be an inadvertent sin and almost any sin a defiant or high-handed sin. The distinction does not have to do with the act itself but with the state of mind and heart with which the sin is committed. In the one case the sin disturbs the relationship between God and a person or even between God and one of his children; in the other case the relationship is destroyed with no possibility of repair. In the one case the sin does not place a man beyond the reach of God’s grace; in the other case there is no possibility of return. The high-handed sin is, in other words, what the NT calls the “sin against the Holy Spirit,” “the unforgivable sin,” or “the sin unto death.” That is, the high-handed sin is the sin of the apostate, the sin of the man or woman who knows the gospel, claimed to have believed it, was taken to be a member of the church, and in full knowledge of what he or she is doing, repudiates God’s covenant and walks away from it. High-handed sins are committed by highly moral people, such as the Pharisees of Jesus’ day and the false-teachers who eventually left the church to which John wrote his first letter. It is not a sin that can be committed by anyone who has not confessed faith in Jesus Christ. Hitler never committed a high-handed sin!

And you have not committed the unforgiveable sin, a high-handed sin if you love the gospel and want it applied to your life; if, however sometimes weakly, you wish to be holy and not to sin, and if you agree that God’s holiness and his mercy toward you oblige you to live in obedience before him.

Or as Thomas Boston described the high-handed sin:

“…whatever your sin be, yet if you be grieved for it, and would be content to have mercy through Christ, or desire the application of his redemption, you are not guilty of this sin.” [Works, i, 538]

We have been considering Israel’s unbelief as it was demonstrated by her refusal to take on the Canaanites at Kadesh. And for the serious Christian the question is always precisely this: might I be one of those church members who is really no member of the church at all. Perhaps I am a closet unbeliever after all and when push comes to shove I’ll not act on my faith in God either. And the primary reason why real, serious-minded Christians worry about this is simply because they sin so much. They do so many things they know God forbids. They fail to do so many things they know very well he requires. And what is more, the more serious, the more devout a Christian man or woman is, the more he or she is troubled by the fact that the problem is not only sin but the love of sin. We aren’t as disturbed by our sins as we know we ought to be because, if truth be told, we love them so. What does that make of us?

To be sure a real Christian, at a fundamental level does not want to sin. If he or she were somehow offered by an angel the opportunity to be instantly free from sin and be able thereafter to offer his or her life to God without any qualification, hesitation, or imperfection, that offer would be accepted in a heartbeat. We want to serve God. We want not to sin. But even as we say that – and honestly mean what we say – we know we are still powerfully drawn to sins of every kind and we know that our lives are filled with sin every day.

But the Bible knows that! We are treated to the forgiveness of all manner of terrible sins in the Bible: David’s sins of adultery, murder, and the neglect of his children; Manasseh’s sins of child sacrifice and idolatry; Peter’s sin of denying the Lord at the climactic moment of the Lord’s suffering. Paul writing to the Corinthian church about all of its sins, and there were ugly sins in that church, never remotely suggested that there was not forgiveness for them. The reality of sin in a real Christian’s life is a constant theme of the Bible.

But there is a great difference between the sin of a believer – the sins he commits in his frailty and the weakness of his flesh – and the sin of an apostate who, knowing full well what he is doing, rejects God and Christ and repudiates God’s covenant.

The great message of this chapter, coming as it does hard on the heels of the rejection of the adult generation of Israel at Kadesh, is that there is forgiveness with God so long as there is real faith in him and love for him. Sin does not nullify a profession of faith, for all believers sin. It is not sin that distinguishes us from unbelievers. Sin is what we have in common with them! What distinguishes us from them is faith in Christ and so the forgiveness of our sins.

On the other hand, the tassels remind us that the fact that there is forgiveness for believing sinners does not mean that they can be indifferent to their sins. God’s great mercy is not extended to us to make us comfortable sinners. True faith cares to obey and even when our commitment to the Lord is undone again and again by our disobedience, true faith is unwilling to make peace with our sins. Christians hear “I am the Lord your God” and we know very well that it is right and necessary for us to obey and serve him.

And all the more given the place that sacrifice plays in this material about the forgiveness of our inadvertent sins. There must be a sacrifice. There must be atonement. Say what you will the Bible proceeds everywhere on the assumption that sin creates a breach between men and God and only atonement, only substitution, only sacrifice can heal that breach. The reason there is forgiveness for sinners as inveterate as ourselves is because there is a sacrifice that avails with God, a sacrifice far greater than the demerit of our sins. Everything in this chapter concerns our relationship with God. Sin offends God and God alone can remove it by forgiving it; but he will forgive only if there has been a sacrifice. And so long as we have access to that sacrifice, that atonement we will have forgiveness no matter how many sins we commit. If we do not have access to that atonement – and that is what is lost when the apostate turns away – there is and can be no forgiveness. Every Christian understands that the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sin; only the sacrifice of Christ to which all those animal sacrifices pointed and of which they were a prophecy; only that sacrifice can take away our sin.

The twentieth century philosopher A.J. Ayer once wrote that a strong case could be made that of all the world’s religions Christianity was the worst because it rested on doctrines that are intellectually contemptible and morally outrageous. He was referring to its doctrine of sin and atonement. Well he was certainly right to say that Christianity rests on those foundations, as does the entire teaching of the Bible. We are reminded that Paul said that it would be this idea of the death of the Son of God for our sins as the only hope of the salvation of the world that would be the great stumbling block to men.

If these truths are anything at all – that we sin and that we can be reconciled to God only through the sacrifice of his Son – if they are anything, they are everything. And that is exactly what they are: absolutely everything. Every Christian knows this: there is forgiveness with God but only in one possible way: through faith in his Son who loved us and gave himself for us.