Today we're going to look at Numbers 5:1-10. This chapter is easy to outline because of the phrase that is repeated three times, in verses 1, 5, and 11: "Then the Lord spoke to Moses saying …." Moses didn't have chapters and verses when he wrote down the Scripture for us under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The people of God knew how to outline this passage because Moses repeated phrases in order to distinctly break up the material and explain to us something of the logic of the passage.
Notice that verses 1-4 deal with physical impurities that caused the people of God to be removed from the camp. They have to leave the near proximity to that physical, visible symbol of the presence of God with his people, the tabernacle. Verses 5-10 deal with moral offenses. Finally, in verses 11-31, we see that domestic tensions are a concern with regard to dwelling in the presence of God.
But today we'll look especially at verses 1-10. We'll read into the eleventh verse just to see those three phrases together, but we're going to concentrate on these physical impurities that require exclusion of even members of the covenant community from the camp, the presence of God; and the moral offenses that also constitute defilement in the people of God. We're going to see not only lessons for Israel, but lessons for us.
In the Book of Numbers so far we have seen God remain faithful in his answer to prayer, taking a group of people that went down into Egypt numbering only 70 and bringing them out with 603,000-plus fighting men. We have seen him number them; we have seen him arrange them; we have seen him count the priests; and he has taught us great spiritual lessons in all of these things. Now he is going to teach us about sin, and what a lesson it is.
Hear the word of God:
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Command the sons of Israel that they send away from the camp every leper and everyone having a discharge and everyone who is unclean because of a dead person. You shall send away both male and female; you shall send them outside the camp so that they will not defile their camp where I dwell in their midst." And the sons of Israel did so and sent them outside the camp; just as the Lord had spoken to Moses, thus the sons of Israel did.
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Speak to the sons of Israel, 'When a man or woman commits any of the sins of mankind, acting unfaithfully against the Lord, and that person is guilty, then he shall confess his sins which he has committed, and he shall make restitution in full for his wrong, and add to it one-fifth of it, and give it to him whom he has wronged. But if the man has no relative to whom restitution may be made for the wrong, the restitution which is made for the wrong must go to the Lord for the priest, besides the ram of atonement, by which atonement is made for him. Also every contribution pertaining to all the holy gifts of the sons of Israel, which they offer to the priest, shall be his. So every man's holy gifts shall be his; whatever any man gives to the priest, it becomes his.'"
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying ….
Thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May he write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
This is a strange passage—a passage about physical impurities. It seems a little harsh at first, doesn't it? If you have a physical impurity, you're excluded from the camp. You're part of God's covenant people, you're a true blue-blood Israelite, and yet you are sent out of the camp. What's the message here? The message here is about defilement and how it excludes us from the enjoyment of communion with God and with his people. Even in these ceremonial defilements that are spoken about in verses 1-4, there are great theological and Christological messages for us. That is, there are things for us to learn about the practical purposes of these commandments on defilement, and there are also things for us to learn about who God is and what he is like, and who Jesus Christ is and what he has done.
But it doesn't stop there, does it? The passage goes on in verses 5-10 to address moral offenses, and there we learn that unlike some of our preconceptions, the Old Testament is not merely concerned with the external. The Old Testament is not merely concerned with the ceremonial and the ritual. No, God is concerned with our hearts, he's concerned with our lives, and he's concerned with our behavior. Moral offenses are just as defiling as ritual offenses, as defilements that are occasioned because of ceremonial impurity brought on by physical infirmities. God cares about our character. He cares about our lives, our actions, our deeds, our words, which we'll learn in verses 5-10.
Lessons learned from physical impurities
What are we to learn from verses 1-4? You'll notice three things in particular that are listed. This is not the first time that we've heard of this. We've heard of it in Exodus and Leviticus, and we'll hear about it again in the Book of Deuteronomy. But here we see three categories of physical impurity that render a person ceremonially or ritually defiled and require that they be removed from the camp (at least for a period of time) until their period of impurity has passed. Then they are tested by the priest (we find out elsewhere in the Pentateuch) and they are allowed back into the fellowship of the community. What are we to learn from this?
Let me suggest three things that we're to learn here. There's a practical significance, of course, to these actions. The kinds of diseases that could have easily been spread in the heat of the wilderness because of contact with people with leprosy, people with hemorrhages or discharges, or even from a dead body, could have ravaged the people of God. There's an obvious physical provision of God for the well-being of his people in their day to day lives by removing those who could spread contagion within the camp. The diseases could have run like wildfire, unchecked, without any of the benefits we have today from the powers of antibiotics and all the glorious treatments of medicine. No, quarantine was the best way to prevent devastating outbreak of disease, which could have killed thousands upon thousands as it spread. These verses may sound harsh, but they are actually a very kind provision of God for the well being of the totality of his people.
But there's much, much more to it than that, isn't there? There's a great theological significance to this passage. The people of God are meant to learn something about God. In fact, I'm going to suggest to you that they're meant to learn three things about God. They're meant to learn that God is holy; they're meant to learn that God is present; and they're meant to learn that God has spoken.
They're meant to learn that God is holy. The whole point here is that God is in the camp and therefore the defiled cannot be there. Look at verse 3: "You shall send away both male and female; you shall send them outside the camp so that they will not defile their camp where I dwell in their midst." God is holy and does not dwell with that which is defiled. What a powerful way of driving home the truth of the holiness of God! When you are in a state of defilement, even physical impurity constituting defilement, you may not dwell in that place where God manifests his special presence. And so you learn that God is holy, and that the defiled cannot dwell with him.
We're reminded of that again at the end of the Book of Revelation. John goes out of his way to say who will not be in heaven: Liars, adulterers, thieves. Those who are defiled will not dwell with God in heaven, because God is holy.
Secondly, though, we learn that God is present. This is the flip side of God's dwelling in the midst of the camp. It is a blessing that God is present, but his presence requires purity on the part of those with whom he dwells. It's frankly a pain to have to live in the camp; you have to take extra care because God is in the house. The Israelites learn that along with the blessing of his presence, there are very important obligations and responsibilities that have to be fulfilled. It requires purity on the part of those with whom he dwells because he is present.
But we also learn here that God has spoken. His command rules the community. He has said that this is how it's going to be, and Moses goes out of his way to remind us of this—that everything God had spoken to Israel, the sons of Israel did. Look at verse 4: "The sons of Israel did so and sent them outside the camp."
Now, understand that the people that the Israelites are sending out of the camp are their own mothers and fathers, their own sisters and brothers, their own sons and daughters, their own husbands and wives. But God said so. And Israel did. God's people live by the Book.
Do you live by the Book? Even when the Book asks you to do something that cuts against your grain? That goes against your desires? That you question in your mind? The people of God lived by the Book, because God has spoken.
So we learn lots of things about God—that he is holy, he is present, and he has spoken. But the most glorious thing of all that we learn about in verses 1-4 is about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Let me remind you that Luke read the Book of Numbers. Dr. Luke, friend of the apostle Paul, companion on missionary journeys, author of the Gospel of Luke, read the Book of Numbers, and he goes out of his way to tell us something extraordinary. In Luke 5:12-13, Luke tells us that Jesus is going through various cities, and of course he is being accompanied by faithful Bible-believing Jewish people, people who had been trained under rabbis who were very much influenced by the movement of Phariseeism. When you hear the word Phariseeism, don't get upset, because if we had been living in that time we would be in a Pharisee synagogue, not at the liberal Sadducees' temple services! You see, the Pharisees were the Bible-believers in those days. The Sadducees were the liberals. The Pharisees believed the Scripture, and they believed that one reason that Israel was in captivity to these pagan Romans was that they had not obeyed the Law. And so they were absolutely committed to making sure that the people of God obeyed the Law. Suddenly in Luke 5:12, they see a leper approaching Jesus. Every blue-blooded Jewish boy there is saying, "Jesus! Get away from him! You will be defiled!" But what does Jesus do? He stretches his hand out and he touches the leper. But something strange happens. Jesus doesn't become unclean because he touched the leper, as in Numbers 5; rather, the leper becomes clean because Jesus has touched him.
Turn forward to Luke 8, and a godly man has come to Jesus and said, "My 12-year-old daughter is dying, Master. She needs your help. You're the only one who can help her. Would you come, Lord, and help my daughter?" '"Yes, I will," Jesus says, and on the way, as he's passing through the crowd, Luke tells us that a woman who had been hemorrhaging for years reaches out her hand and touches the hem of his garment, and something really strange happens. Jesus doesn't become unclean; she becomes clean! She's healed instantaneously! Just like the leper! Jesus goes on to the house, and by the time he gets there, the child is dead. So what does he do? He goes into the house, Luke tells us, and he touches the child. He does not become unclean; she is raised from the dead. See what Luke is telling us? All three of these categories of defilement—the leper, the one with hemorrhage, and the one who is dead—those who once defiled the camp of Israel and thus were excluded are now made clean and healed by Jesus Christ, God in the flesh. Jesus is the answer to our defilement.
All Luke does is expound on the Book of Numbers for us in light of the powerful work of Jesus Christ, and he would never have been able to appreciate the profundity of what Jesus had done had not God, in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, written the Book of Numbers by the hand of Moses. We see this powerful testimony to the work of Jesus Christ right there in Numbers 5:1-4.
Lessons learned from moral offenses
Then look at verses 5-10. These are harder verses on us, because they speak to the various kinds of moral offenses that we commit. Notice how generally it's put in verse 6: "Speak to the sons of Israel, 'When a man or woman commits any of the sins of mankind, acting unfaithfully against the Lord, and that person is guilty …." All kinds of sins are included under this. All manner of breaking the Law, especially sins against our brothers and sisters, are included here. And notice how sin is defined, and how its effects are described in this passage: "When a man or a woman commits any of the sins of mankind …."
It's assumed that these sins are primarily sins committed against our neighbor, and so the effect of our sin is that we have violated the fundamental principle of the law of love for our neighbor. Instead of loving our neighbor, we have used our neighbor out of self-love, and thus sin entails a horizontal dimension. It entails a fracturing of our relationship with our neighbor.
But then notice how Numbers puts it: "… acting unfaithfully against the Lord." Does that remind you of anything? David masterminds the murder of Uriah; he fornicates and then commits adultery and then takes Bathsheba illegitimately into marriage; he lies to the best of his household; he puts his general and his army in a situation of aiding and abetting his immorality; and what does he say in Psalm 51? "Against you and you only have I sinned …." Even my sins against you and even your sins against one another are unfaithfulness to the Lord. They have a vertical dimension. There is no sin without a vertical dimension.
There is also a personal dimension to sin. What is the last phrase? "That person is guilty." Not just by declaration of a court of law, but intrinsically, according to his heart. And so there's a horizontal and a vertical and a personal dimension of sin. We learn that from this passage.
We also learn how we're supposed to respond to this, because one of the things that God makes so clear in this passage is that there is a need for repentance here that goes way beyond simply saying "I'm sorry." I don't know how it is when you're teaching your children to repent, but I know a couple of children who have a tendency, when confronted especially with their sins towards one another, to say to one another with great pathos and meaning welling up in their eyes, "I'm sorry!" and turn away. We have to turn them back around and say, "I'm sorry for what? And do you need to ask for forgiveness?" But we adults are sometimes no different from our children in our dealings with one another (except that maybe we're a little more hard-hearted), and very often our reaction when we have been caught red-handed is "I'm sorry!"
In this passage God says that that's not how repentance works in his household. Here is what repentance looks like: We must recognize our sin. We must admit that what we did was unloving toward our neighbor, unfaithful to him, and brought personal guilt upon us. When my brothers and I were caught in red-handed sin by our mother, she recounted to us in great detail, no matter how fully and sincerely we had expressed to her our deep regret and remorse for the action which we had just done, the depth of the wickedness that we had committed so that our only choice was to simply eat her words. We'd think all along, Mom, I just said to you that I'm sorry for doing this. You are recounting it in triplicate to me. But she impressed upon us our recognition of our sin, because sin loves to repent generally as opposed to specifically, to skirt the full effect of the damage it has wreaked.
Secondly, we are told from this passage that we must confess the sin. We're not just to say, "I'm sorry," but, "This is what I've done against you, God, and it's wrong. It's horrible. It's inexcusable."
A friend of mine was the chief ethical policy advisor to the President of the United States several years ago. He ended up resigning from that position, and a few weeks later it was discovered why. He had been going to Target stores and stealing. He was a Christian, however—a godly man in so many ways—and he went through a period of specific dealings with his pastors and elders in repentance. One day he stood before the judge, and, much to his lawyers' chagrin, confessed in detail without plea for mitigation everything that he had done, and then simply cast himself upon the mercy of the court. The judge was flabbergasted. He said, "You know, in some 30 years on the bench, I have never heard someone confess to a crime like this." Well, my friend did, because he was a Christian, and it was important for him to confess his sin.
But then it doesn't stop there, does it? The passage then speaks of restitution, and notice how this restitution works. If the person whom you have defrauded is not alive, restitution must still be made to a family member. If a family member can't be found, that restitution goes to the house of the Lord to further the services of the priests of God. And what do priests do? They make atonement. That's their business.
An atonement offering is the last step. Atonement must be made by the priest for the guilty party. Do you see the fullness of this repentance? There's recognition of sin, confession of sin, restitution for sin, and atonement for sin. There's no easy forgiveness here. This repentance recognizes that dealing with sin is hard—very hard.
Of course, the last lesson in these verses is simply this: moral offenses defile the camp of God just as surely as do physical impurities; indeed, more so, because God has called us to be holy as he is holy. But this, too, points us to Christ, doesn't it? Because in the end none of those sacrifices—none of them—can touch the depth of the sin in my heart. That's why when we're redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, we love to proclaim it.
Ligon Duncan is the Chancellor/CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary and the John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology.