PURITY FOR PILGRIMS Numbers 15–21
“They are to be responsible” (Num. 18:3).Repetition of earlier laws on sacrifice, and severe judgments that God inflicts on disobedient priests remind Israel that believers are called to be pure while on pilgrimage.
A review of sacrifices and offerings (15:1–31), execution of a Sabbath-breaker (vv. 32–36), and a new law (vv. 37–41) reminded Israel that God’s people are to be holy. Swift judgment fell on disobedient Levites (16:1–50), as God reaffirmed Aaron’s primacy (17:1–13) and emphasized again the responsibilities of priests and Levites (18:1–19), as well as the need for continual cleansing (19:1–22). Trust was taught as the king of Arad was defeated (21:1–3), snakebite was cured merely by looking at a bronze serpent (vv. 4–9), and major Amorite powers were crushed in battle (vv. 10–35).
Understanding the Text
“Offerings made by fire” Num. 15:1–31. The travel narrative is interrupted here by rules governing a variety of offerings. Why? These chapters on ritual serve as a commentary on the preceding chapters. God’s people had refused to believe and had disobeyed. These laws reminded them of God’s original call to holiness. Note too that the regulations were for “after you enter the land I am giving you.” So these laws were also a promise that God would bring Israel home despite one generation’s unbelief. “The man must die” Num. 15:32–36. Verses 30–31 decree that anyone who “sins defiantly” must be “cut off from his people.” A Sabbath-breaker, caught gathering fuel on that day, was stoned to death by the entire assembly. Israel needed to realize that deliberate sin corrupts the community and must be dealt with decisively. “A blue cord on each tassel” Num. 15:38. Blue represents royalty and deity. It was the dominant color in the high priest’s garments and the color of the cloth that wrapped the ark of the covenant. The blue thread in the tassels to be attached to the clothing of ordinary Hebrews reminded them that each believer was holy, a community called to be a royal priesthood. “Isn’t it enough for you that the God of Israel has separated you?” Num. 16:1–41 The Levites Korah, Dathan, and Abiram challenged the spiritual leadership of Moses and Aaron. They based the challenge on the very truth emphasized by the blue cord: the whole community is holy. Like others today, however, they emphasized one truth at the expense of others. The whole community was holy, but God had chosen Moses for leadership and Aaron’s family for the priesthood. We need to be careful of those who base their views on one line of biblical teaching and ignore other truths intended to provide balance. Psychologically, it’s fascinating that this rebellion was led by Levites, for they enjoyed far greater spiritual privileges than the majority of the Israelites. Yet these Levites were upset that they could not serve as priests. Even today some with almost nothing are more thankful than those who have almost everything. It seems that when we have almost everything, the little we lack is most likely to create discontent. This challenge to the leaders was yet another expression of unbelief. Korah and his coconspirators refused to acknowledge that God had spoken clearly, and often, through Moses. Their sin too was met with immediate, spectacular judgment. Fire consumed those who dared to approach God with incense in violation of His law, while the earth opened to swallow Korah and the rest of his followers. “You have killed the Lord’s people” Num. 16:41–49. Accusation is yet another sign of unbelief. Again God acted in judgment, and a plague killed 14,700 Israelites. This time the plague was stopped by an act of Aaron, who hurriedly offered incense and stood between the living and the dead. This event initiated a series of events intended to underline the importance of Israel’s priesthood, which alone could offer the sacrifices which cleansed Israel, and made holiness possible. “You are to be responsible” Num. 17:1–18:32. To demonstrate His choice of Aaron, God miraculously caused Aaron’s staff to sprout, bud, blossom, and produce fruit overnight. With the priesthood confirmed to Aaron’s family, the text goes on to define their responsibilities. The priests are to care for the sanctuary, and offer the sacrifices necessary to cleanse a people so prone to sin (18:1–7). In return, the priests are to receive a part of the sacrifices offered to God, and also to be given a 10th from the tithe given to the Levites by the other tribes. Spiritual privileges bring both heavy responsibilities and great rewards. “Water of cleansing” Num. 19:1–22. In Israel ritual uncleanness was contagious. If a person touched a dead body, he not only became unclean himself, but whatever he touched then became unclean. This meant that uncleanness had to be dealt with immediately, before the whole camp and the tabernacle itself could be contaminated. Thus the ashes of a sacrificed heifer were kept nearby, ready to be mixed with water and immediately sprinkled on anyone who had touched a dead body. The rite was not magical, but reflected spiritual realities. Sin does contaminate and must be dealt with immediately. You and I too are to deal with our sins without delay. We are to confess our sins to God at once, make restitution, and rely on God’s promise to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). “Just as [the Lord] commanded him” Num. 20:1–13. As the journey toward Canaan resumed, Israel reached the depths. Miriam died and was buried. When no water was found, opposition again arose. Moses became so upset that he failed to obey God completely, and struck rather than spoke to a rock from which God intended to produce water. This failure to follow God’s command, as much as Israel’s open rebellion at Kadesh Barnea, was an expression of unbelief. As a result, God announced to Moses that he too would die before Israel entered the Promised Land. No one is too important to God’s work to avoid discipline. No one is so important that he or she need not bother to obey the Lord completely. “Israel turned away from them” Num. 20:14–29. The dark days continued, as Israel retreated before a great Moabite army, and Aaron met his death. Yet even in the gloom, a bright hope is expressed. The text says Aaron was “gathered to his people.” This phrase is used in the Old Testament of the death of believers who have lived into old age. It expresses a firm belief that in death an individual is reunited with the loved ones who have gone on before. When we suffer the loss of a loved one today, and everything seems dark, this phrase reminds us of the hope shared by God’s people of all times. Death is not the end. It is a reunion. One day all who believe will join the happy company of the redeemed and enjoy fully God’s gift of eternal life.
Look, and Live (Num. 21)
Often the sequence of events recorded in Scripture, as well as the events themselves, teach us important truths. This is certainly the case in Numbers 21, which contrasts so greatly with chapter 20. In the former chapter, Israel reached the low point on her journey toward Canaan. Even Moses was shown to be vulnerable to unbelief. Hopelessness, defeat, and death seemed to be all that God’s people could look forward to. But then the tenor of the Old Testament text shifts dramatically. Israel sought God’s help and won a victory over the Canaanite king of Arad (vv. 1–3). What if that southern kingdom was tiny? It was a victory at last. When everything seems dark, every victory is important. And then the people spoke against God and Moses again! This time the Lord sent an infestation of poisonous serpents. But again a new theme was introduced. Moses made a bronze serpent, raised it high on a pole, and promised that bitten individuals could simply look at the bronze snake and be cured. Individuals with faith looked. And they lived! Even though the community is riddled with unbelief, there remains hope for individuals who are willing to trust God. Clearly, trust is an effective antidote for unbelief! The next incident suggests that trust was now contagious, just as unbelief had been contagious before. The Israelites faced a major enemy in two neighboring Amorite kingdoms—and conquered them. God had said, “Do not be afraid of him, for I have handed him over to you, with his whole army and his land.” This time the people believed, obeyed—and won! This phase of the journey, which had begun in such despair, ended in joy. Israel was learning that a purified people, willing to trust God, would enjoy victory rather than defeat. What a message for us to remember. No matter how flawed our past life, no matter how dark our present, we do have hope. We can determine now that the next steps we take on our pilgrimage will be steps of faith. We can believe. We can obey. And, when we do, we can win!
Remember that both trust and unbelief are contagious. Be sure to give your loved ones the right “disease.”