Numbers 15 is a relatively peaceable chapter, given the spectacular failure to defeat the Amalekites and Canaanites in chapter 14 and even more rebellion and divine retribution in chapter 16. As the Children of Israel settle down into their forty years in the desert, they are given commandments which reassure them of a promised future, and reinforce how God wants His people to live.
The whole chapter points to how God’s people ought to respond, whether in times of thankfulness, or in penitence, the consequence of “high-handed” sin and a tutorial on how to remember the commandments. Perhaps the chapter can be summarized by verse 40: “that ye may remember, and do all my commandments and be holy unto your God”.
Holiness was the objective and God was determined that His people should know how to achieve this in the present and the future. One of the hardest tasks for Christians is to take books such as Numbers with its many ordinances and commandments and make it relevant to our 21st-century experience—a living text. It is as we take the experience of the Israelites, our spiritual ancestors, and apply it to our context, that practical meaning can be derived.
Twice in chapter 15 God refers, in messages delivered through Moses, to “when you have come into the land you are to inhabit which I am giving to you” (15: 2, 18). This was reassuring to the unfaithful people who had denied God’s ability to take them to victory over their seemingly superior enemies. Despite a delay in the promise, and the untimely death of the generation involved, God would keep his word. The young people would inherit the land and enjoy the benefits of a land flowing with milk and honey. In Chapter 15, the Israelites are given a foretaste of the abundance of the land in the commands given for non-meat offerings; provisions not readily available in the arid desert.
For Christians today, it is also true that whilst our sins may cause God to delay his promises, He will always keep His word concerning his ultimate purpose in our lives; as long as we are willing to repent. In his book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning explains, |the poor man and woman of the gospel have made peace with their flawed existence […] they do not excuse their sin […] they do not pretend to be anything but what they are: sinners saved by grace.| Even in the giving of laws, God’s grace is manifest—He is still prepared to work with reprobate mankind.
As the first half of the chapter is the giving of laws for making offerings, “to fulfill a vow or as a freewill offering or in your appointed feasts” (v. 3), it is worth considering the purpose of these offerings. The most common understanding of sacrifice is for the atonement of sin, yet in times of thankfulness, celebration and solemnity, the people were also told to formally acknowledge God. How do we, today, “make a sweet aroma to the Lord”? (Num.15:3, Gen. 8:21, Phil. 4:18)
The Old Testament sacrifices, as always, pointed to a greater truth; every aspect of our lives should be an all-pervasive testimony to the goodness of God. The Apostle Paul declares that we should be “a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1)—that is, not giving simply out of the abundance of our wealth, but the essence of our being. Habakkuk reached a place in his experience that every Christian should aspire to. His thanksgiving to God was no longer tied to laws, festivities, celebrations or providential favor. After pondering the vision he had been given and understanding the future of Israel, he declared that regardless of how circumstances unfolded, he would take “joy in the Lord” (Hab. 3:17-19). We should consider more carefully not only our acts of thanksgiving but also adopting an attitude of thanks, rooted in an unchanging God and not our changeable circumstances.
In the midst of the laws on grain and drink offerings there is a poignant point on community cohesion regarding, ‘the stranger within our gate’. On Thursday, October 22, Nick Griffin the leader of the extreme right-wing British National Party (BNP) was controversially granted a seat on the panel of a popular BBC weekly politics program, “Question Time”—a program that is the touchstone of popularized political debate for middle-class Britain. Whilst on most occasions politicians jostle against each other to show how their blueprint for life on this isle is better than the others, on this occasion it was different. There was unanimous solidarity amongst the panel and one thousand-strong audience, against the hate politics of the BNP.
The church’s history mirrors that of wider society, showing that we have often struggled with the issue of the “stranger within our gates”’ Alas, at times it has been apparent that secular society has become more socially accepting of diversity than the Church. Yet in Numbers 15:15, God sets out that there should be “one ordinance […] one law and one custom,” for, “as you are so, so shall the stranger be before the Lord”. There was not to be a two-tier system although this was what the Israelites later established.
The same principle of equality is re-echoed in verses 26 and 29 when discussing unintentional sin. Thus, not only in acts of thanksgiving, but also in penitence the native-born were equal to the foreigner. We know that in later years the Jews became very elitist and cloistered their faith and its benefits for themselves. Yet, even before they were fully established in the land of promise, God sets out how He wants His people to be. God’s purpose for His people, regardless of their ethnic origin, was unity in Him. For all of us have sinned, unintentional or otherwise and regardless of who built the local church, preferred styles of music, language and cultural differences; when we kneel before God his grace is inclusive (Exod. 20:10, Gal. 3:28, Rom. 2:11). It is a timely reminder for us that God tells the Israelites that both those descended from Israel and those who are not are equal before Him.
The chapter is also a timely reminder of the danger of presumptuous sin. In Numbers 15:22-36 we find the laws concerning sacrifices for unintentional and intentional sin, with an added case study of a man who sinned presumptuously and paid for it with his life. Whilst the laws regarding unintentional sin, seem quite straightforward, the laws for presumptuous sin are the hardest to read and relate to our present reality. The person who committed presumptuous, or “high handed” sin, was to be cut off from the congregation (Num. 15:30-31). The SDA Bible Commentary explains that “the sacrificial system provided no atonement for deliberate opposition to the will of God” (p.872). An example of presumptuous sin is given in the man who “defiantly” collected sticks on the Sabbath and was stoned by the congregation outside the camp (Num. 15:32-36). One might argue that we do not live in a theocracy and are not under the law (Rom. 6:14), so what can we learn from this incident? Israel’s experience, prior and post this event, was speckled with events where the presumptuous sin of one or a few men led to the deaths of many (Num. 14, II Sam. 24, Jos. 7). Indeed rebellion in heaven was caused by the presumption of Lucifer (Isa. 14:13-15). The corporate nature of the stoning emphasized to the people that high-handed sin had an effect on, and consequences for, the whole community. Although we today are unlikely to be stoned, unchecked presumptuous sin in our lives and the lives of those around us, can have eternally lasting consequences. God took a strong stand against this type of sin, as a surgeon would try to eradicate a cancerous tumor before it spreads. Despite the amazing nature of grace, we should also be mindful of the disastrous consequences of our rebellion.
God knew that his people had a tendency to drift into apostasy and in the last five verses of Numbers 15, He instructs Moses to tell the people to where tassels on their garments. “You shall have the tassel, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandment of the Lord and do them” (Num. 15:39). The wearing of tassels was an ancient practice that God adopted for His people to aid their memory. I wonder if Christendom has any outward equivalents of the tassels today? The outline of a fish stuck on a car, WWJD bracelets or rings, a crucifix necklace? We are a forgetful people and this is why God at times often prefaced his commands with the word “Remember”. Yet it all pointed to the more significant point, God wanted His people of promise to write his laws on their hearts in indelible ink, so that through his grace, they could be holy (Jer. 31:33, Prov. 7:3).
As with the Israelites, we today are a people of promise, outside of the promise land. God’s words to the Israelites, “when you have come into the land you are to inhabit which I am giving to you’ (Num. 15: 2, 18), are similar to words of Jesus to his disciples, “I go to prepare a place for you […] I will come again and receive you unto Myself” (John 14:2-3). As we plan for our eternal future, we can look back to our spiritual forefathers and realize that the situation that they were in is not dissimilar from our own circumstances.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1954