Numbers 5
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
The host has now been marshaled. The several tribes have taken the places allotted to them in relation to the tabernacle and to one another. They are about to set forth on the march from the wilderness of Sinai. Before the signal is given, certain final instructions for the regulation of the camp have yet to be delivered, and this about the removal of unclean persons is one of them. The general intention of it is intimated in the terms employed. The host is to be so ordered, both in the camp and on the march, as to make it a living picture of the Church, and the Church's relation to God. It is to be made manifest that he dwells and walks among the covenant people (Leviticus 26:11, 12), that he is of pure eyes, and cannot suffer evil to dwell with him. Accordingly, there must in no wise abide in the camp any man or woman that is unclean. Persons afflicted with uncleanness must be removed, and live outside of the sacred precinct. Such is the law here laid down.

I. IN ATTRIBUTING TO THIS LAW A RELIGIOUS INTENTION, I DO NOT FORGET THAT A LOWER AND MORE PROSAIC INTERPRETATION HAS SOMETIMES BEEN PUT ON IT. There are commentators who remind one of the man with the muck-rake in the "Pilgrim's Progress." They have no eye except for what is earthly. To them the removal of the unclean is simply a sanitary measure. I freely admit that there was a sanitary intention. The sequestering of lepers, the early and "extramural" burial of the dead - these are valuable sanitary provisions, and it is plain that this law would lead to them. But I need not wait to prove that the law looks higher, and that its paramount intention is moral and spiritual.

II. Passing on, therefore, to the RELIGIOUS INTENTION Of this law, observe who exactly are excluded by it from the camp. They are of three sorts, viz., lepers, persons affected with issues of various kinds, and persons who had come in contact with the dead. This does not by any means exhaust the catalogue of defilements noted in the Levitical law. But these were the gravest. Only these three disabled from residence in the camp. My reason for calling attention to this point you will understand when I mention that these three uncleannesses, so prominent in the law of Moses, received the same kind of prominence in the gracious ministry of Christ. Read the story of the leper (Mark 1:41); of the woman with the issue of blood (Mark 5:27-30); of the raising of Jairus' daughter and the widow's son at Nain (Mark 5:41 and Luke 7:14). In no one of these passages is the Levitical law named. Much the greater number of those who read or hear them fail to perceive that in Christ's mode of performing the miracles there was any reference to what the law had said about the defiling quality of the evils on which his gracious power was put forth. That there truly was a reference surely needs no proof. No Jew ever forgot what the penalty would be if he suffered himself to be in contact with a dead body, with a leper, with a person having an issue of blood. Certainly our Lord did not forget. Nor would it be doing justice to the truth to say that our Lord touched as he did, notwithstanding the defilement thereby contracted, and its troublesome consequences. He, of set purpose, sought occasion to put himself in contact with every one of the three causes of defilement noted in the law. Keeping this in mind, let us ask the meaning of the law.

1. The general intention. It was to be a memorial of the truth that our nature is deeply infected with sin, and that sin disables all in whom it is found for enjoying the fellowship of God here and hereafter. In this Levitical statute, I admit, the lesson is not taught explicitly. There was nothing morally wrong in any one of the three sources of defilement named. The teaching is by symbol - a kind of object lesson - and not the less impressive on that account.

2. The meaning of the several symbols.

(1) Defilement by the dead. Why is this? Because death is the wages of sin (Genesis 2:17; Genesis 3:19). Compare the representation of death which pervades Psalm 90 - "the prayer of Moses."

(2) Defilement by leprosy. A touching symbol. It admonishes us that sin, besides being blameworthy and deserving of death, is a vile thing, to be loathed and recoiled from, as men loathe and recoil from a leper; contagious also, and apt to spread.

(3) Of the third symbol I need say only this, that it reminds us that sin is an hereditary evil (Psalm 51:5).

3. The relation of this law to Christ and his work. That it has a relation has been already pointed out. The relation may be conceived of thus : - The law is the dark ground on which the redemptive work of Christ unfolds the brightness of its grace. Christ did not keep aloof from the evils which afflict our fallen nature, and which perpetually remind us how deep our fall has been. He took occasion to put himself in contact with them. He touched the leprous man. Not that leprosy was sweet to him; it was to him as loathsome as to any man in Palestine that day. Nevertheless, he touched the leprous man, and the leprosy fled before the power of that touch. Leprosy, wasting issues, death - these are the memorials and tokens of the sin that is the fatal heritage of our fallen race; and one who would know our need of redemption cannot do better than meditate on them as they are set forth in the Levitical law. Leprosy, wasting issues, death - these evils our blessed Lord went up to in his ministry; he touched them, and their flight the instant that they felt his touch gave, and continues still to give, assurance to men that he is indeed the Saviour. He can forgive sin; he can make us clean; he is the resurrection and the life. - B.

This law, like many others, in part a sanitary law; but also educational in spiritual truth, and typical of eternal realities. Two truths taught: -

I. THE HOLINESS OF GOD. This lesson, so hard to the Israelites, was impressed on them in many ways, e.g., sacred men ministering in sacred places, on sacred days, etc. This holy God dwelt in the midst of their tents, and walked among them (Leviticus 26:11, 12). The God of life and purity was utterly alien from death and impurity. Defilement, whether willful or unavoidable, could not be tolerated in his presence. If the polluted are retained, God withdraws. Sin is "the abominable thing" which God hates. He is "of purer eyes than to behold evil" (Jeremiah 44:4; Habakkuk 1:13).

II. THE EXCOMMUNICATING POWER OF SIN. The consequences to the excluded Hebrews, though limited, were by no means light. They had to suffer loss of privileges, ceremonial and spiritual, and a sense of humiliation from the notoriety of their position. For the time they were out of communion with God and his people. Thus sin has an isolating power. Apart from an act of ecclesiastical excommunication or Divine judgment, its tendency is to separate us from the people of God through want of sympathy. We cease to enjoy their privileges even if not debarred from them. We lose self-respect when sin is exposed, if not before. We are out of communion with God, into whose presence we cannot truly come with sin indulged in our hearts (Psalm 66:18; Ezekiel 14:3). God's salvation is from sin, not in sin. No wonder, therefore, that the impure are sentenced -

(1) to excommunication from the Church on earth (1 Corinthians 5:9-13, etc.),

(2) to exclusion from the Church in heaven. (Revelation 21:27). - P.

The book up to this point is occupied with the counting and discipline of the people, both those for war and those for tabernacle service. Now the cleansing of the camp is to be attended to.

I. THE CLASSES WHO WERE DECLARED UNCLEAN. Certainly we must not be too curious in our inquiries here, or we may soon pass the verge of what is edifying. But there are some points of note with regard to all three classes. The leper. Why should he be declared unclean? Perhaps as suffering from a more manifest disease than others, maybe a peculiarly offensive one, and one of the most difficult to cure. These are conjectures which give a little light, but the great reason for ceremonial uncleanness in the case of human beings, as in the case of lower animals, is to be found in Jehovah's positive injunction. Leprosy was thus to be one of the great types in the body of the defiling effect of sin upon the soul. It is clear that in the course of ages the idea got fixed in the Israelite mind that the cure of leprosy was to be considered as a cleansing. Jesus commanded his apostles to heal the sick, cleanse the lepers. The leper was not a common victim, but singled out to impress the fact that the ultimate cause which produces disease is a strange and polluting thing; no necessary element in human nature, though now it be actually present in us all. The person with an issue. Thus uncleanness is connected with birth as well as with death. Whenever a child is born, a being is brought into the world, which certainly will add something to the evil in it, though possibly it may add much to the good. The saintliest of believers has had in hint the possibilities of the worst of unbelievers. Human nature is truly the creation of God, fearfully and wonderfully made; but there is also the fact of birth from sinful human parents to be remembered. This is a great mystery, to be delicately handled; but the uncleanness here indicated may be taken as intended to remind parents how one generation transmits not only nature, but sinful nature, to another. The person defiled by the dead. There is great. significance in being made unclean by the dead. Of all things in the world that manifest the effects of sin, this is the greatest - death. By sin came death. All lesser results lead up to this. A dead body, in one sense as sacred a thing as there is in the world, is yet also one of the most unclean. As long as there is life there is something to protest against the reign of sin, and resist it; but life being gone, sin riots and revels in the corruption of what was once fair and strong. The coffin and the gravestone hide, but they only hide. It was one of our Lord's most terrible words to the Pharisees to compare them to whited sepulchers.

II. THE LINE OF SEPARATION. There are large details in Leviticus respecting all these instances of uncleanness (chapters 12-15). The line of separation was clearly marked, sternly enforced. To go out of the camp meant much personal inconvenience, perhaps pain - suffering added on to existing suffering. Imagine the mother tending her sick child, waiting its expiring breath, closing its eyes, composing its body, then compelled to go without the camp. This typical ceremonial uncleanness indicates the sharp separation, between good and bad mere The word of God accords in all its references to this. There are two classes, and only two - the clean and the unclean, the sheep and the goats, the wheat and tares, the children of God and the children of wrath. It also indicates the extent to which discipline can be carried in the Church of Christ on earth. There are some offences so plain that the guilty may at once be cut off from outward communion. But there may be others quite as unworthy who yet do and must escape, because their life makes no crying scandal. Many a professed and long-continued adherent to the true Church is, nevertheless, as worldly, hard, and selfish as any of the ungodly. God reckons all such outside the camp. He alone has the knowledge and authority to reckon. Learn then the danger of all spiritual uncleanness. That so much was declared typically unclean, shows that spiritual uncleanness is a very great danger. The boundary between the Church and the world cannot be too strictly kept. Since we are all advancing to death, it is proof of the power of sin in our nature. We are all unclean with the worst of uncleanness. It only waits for us to feel all the evil, and the way is clear to the remedy (1 John 1:7-10). - Y.

This precept is a continuation of the one laid down in the preceding verses, and, like it, admonishes the people regarding the purity which ought to prevail in a camp honoured with the presence of the Holy One. Since the Lord dwells in the midst of the camp, there must not abide in it anything that defileth - any leper, any one having an issue, any one who has been in contact with the dead. Nor is it bodily defilement only that entails this disability. The man "that doeth hurt to his neighbour" is unclean in God's sight. Fraud is as defiling as leprosy. Even if it is such as the criminal law cannot reach, God's eye sees it, and is offended with it; and the wrong-doer must regard himself as excluded from the camp till he has made restitution to his wronged neighbour, and brought a sacrifice of atonement to the Lord. I. Keeping in view the scope of the law as I have described it, you will without difficulty master the particulars laid down, especially if you read along with it the law in Leviticus 6:1-7. It is essential to observe that this injunction is not a part of the criminal code. It is not laid down for the guidance of the judges, but for the guidance of a man's own conscience. The restitution enjoined is similar to that known among ourselves as CONSCIENCE MONEY. Take an example. A man finds a pruning-hook by the highway-side, evidently left there by mistake. He takes it home. "An excellent pruning-hook; the very thing I was in need of. I need not make a noise about the lucky find; I will keep it to myself." A few days after, the loser turns up, and makes inquiries about his hook. But the finder denies all knowledge of it, and it remains in his possession. Among us the criminal law would have something to say to this dishonest finder. The meshes of the Hebrew criminal code seem to have been wide enough to let him go. But the holy law of God speaks to his conscience.

1. He is to confess his fault. Even in matters belonging to the criminal law, the Jews laid great stress on confession. It was a maxim among them, that if a man brought an offering for his offence, but omitted to confess the evil he had done, his offering would not avail for atonement (cf. 1 John 1:9).

2. He is to make restitution to the person wronged. In the instance supposed the pruning-hook must be restored, or its equivalent in money, with one-fifth part added. This, let me observe in passing, shows that the trespass contemplated is not a trespass such as fell within the scope of the criminal law; for the restitution enjoined in the criminal law was much ampler A thief restored double; a sheep-stealer fourfold; a cattle-lifter fivefold (Exodus 22:1-4). Mild penalties certainly, but more severe than the restitution enjoined here.

3. A ram is to be brought to the Lord as a trespass offering for atonement.

4. If the person who was wronged is dead, the restitution is to be made to the next heir, - the kinsman, or goel (verse 8), - whom failing, it is to be made to the Lord in the person of the priest. In connection with this, the people are admonished that all gifts solemnly dedicated to the priest fall under the same rule as conscience money paid by way of compensation for fraud. Omission to pay them will defile the camp.


1. When a man does wrong to his neighbour he sins against God, and must crave God's pardon for the wrong. There have been religious systems - the old Greek and Roman paganism, for example - which completely disconnected religion from morality. A tendency in the same direction, who that knows himself has not caught a glimpse of in his own heart? Against that fatal divorce the whole word. of God is a protest and warning. Read Psalm 15:2. When a man does wrong to his neighbour he must make compensation to his neighbour. It will not do simply to confess the wrong to God, and beg his pardon. That is only one half of what the case demands. Satisfaction must be made to the person wronged. In many cases the civil magistrate will see to this. In many other cases the wrong-doing is of a kind which his sword cannot reach - fraudulent bankruptcies often elude the law. In all cases alike, God commands the person who has wronged his neighbour to repay him with increase.

3. The wrongdoer who omits to repay as required is admonished that he is an unclean person, whose presence defiles God's sanctuary. In God's sight the camp is defiled by the presence of a man who defrauds as much as by a leper. If you would see how deeply this aspect of the precept before us impressed itself on consciences in Israel read Psalm 15, a psalm fitted surely to suggest alarm to those amongst us who in business habitually violate the golden rule, and yet claim a place in God's sanctuary.

4. In the complications of modern life it will happen far more frequently than in ancient Israel that satisfaction for fraud cannot be made directly to the parties defrauded. In this case the money is to be devoted to charitable and pious uses. To be sure, ill-gotten wealth is a very undesirable source of income for either Church or charity. I much doubt whether God honours it to do much good. But if the fraudulent person is truly penitent, and has done his best to make compensation to his victims, he may hope to escape the defilement and curse that cleave to dishonest gains by bestowing them where they may possibly do some good. - B.

These trespasses are explained and illustrated in Leviticus 6:1-7. In both passages provision is made for confession, restitution, interest, and atonement - in Leviticus the atonement being spoken of more fully than here. Notice that three parties are provided for in the directions given.

I. THE WRONG-DOER. The wrong-doer has done injury to himself as well as another. In one sense the injury is even greater. What we suffer from others, grievous and irritating as it may be at the time, need not be an abiding ill; but the injury we inflict on others is great spiritual danger to ourselves. Hence the man truly confessing the wrong he had done was proving himself in a better state of mind, no longer the victim of selfishness, and glorying in his shame, but showing an awakened conscience, and a repentance needing not to be repented of. Consider the benefit David got (Psalm 51). Confession, restitution, and atonement cleanse the bosom of a great deal of "perilous stuff." Restitution, though a loss in possessions, is a gain in peace. Reparation of a wrong done to a fellow-man is to be valued for the injured person's sake; but it is a great deal more that the wrong-doer for his own sake has been brought right with God.

II. THE PERSON WRONGED. He is provided for as far as he can be provided for. To make reparation in all respects is indeed impossible. A wrong-doer, with all his efforts, cannot put things exactly as they were before. Still he must do what he can. Hence the provision to add a fifth over the principal. Doubtless a truly repentant trespasser would not stop even at that to show his sincerity in reparation. Zaccheus restored fourfold. Surely there are some injured persons to whom it would be a greater joy and a greater benefit to see their enemies altogether altered than if they had never been hurt by them at all. One great good, as concerned the person wronged, was that confession and restitution would do much to allay, and perhaps obliterate, the sense of injustice. "It is not what a man outwardly has or wants that constitutes the happiness or misery of him. It is the feeling of injustice that is insupportable to all men. The brutalest black African cannot bear that he should be used unjustly" (Carlyle). Again, injured persons themselves may be injurers. A sense of wrong suffered is not always effectual in hindering the sufferer from wronging others. So the confession and repentance of one might lead to the confession and repentance of another. Who knows the total effect produced on the persons to whom Zaccheus made his fourfold restitution?

III. JEHOVAH HIMSELF. Acknowledgment and restitution were not enough without atonement. To injure a fellow-man is to rebel against the government of God, robbing him of some possible service from the person injured. The wrong-doer, from prickings of conscience, or mere uneasiness of mind, may make some reparation to his fellow-man, whom he can see; but if he thinks he has then done all, he may find, from continued uneasiness, that something is yet unaccomplished. It is the greatest blot on sinful men, not that they are unjust to one another, but that they have come short of the glory of God. That glory must be restored, and God take the place of self, if human relations are to come right. There is no scheme of teaching or example that, acting on natural lines, will ever make men perfectly just to one another. Things must be put right with God, for of him, and through him, and to him are all things. Let no one, therefore, make confession and restitution here look large, and atonement be pushed into the corner as an unimportant detail. Just as the confession and restitution point forward to the pure and vigorous ethics of Jesus, so the slain animals point forward to him who takes away the sin of the world. - Y.

Just previously, regulations are laid down with respect to offences in general. Here is an offence which needed to be dealt with m a special way, as being one where restitution was impossible. The offence also destroyed a relation of peculiar sacredness and importance, and the discovery of guilt was difficult, perhaps impossible of attainment, by ordinary lines of proof.

I. THE HUSBAND'S POSITION IS RECOGNIZED. The spirit of jealousy is not condemned as in itself an evil passion. In it he might be angry and sin not. The spirit of jealousy could not be too much excited or too amply satisfied, if only the facts corresponded to his feelings. No mention is made of a similar ordeal for the husband to pass through if a spirit of jealousy were awakened in the wife, and so it may seem that more severity was meted out to the woman than the man. But the offence of an unfaithful husband, equally great of course as a sin, might not be equally dangerous as a crime. The principles of human law which compel men to graduate crime and punishment had to be remembered in the theocracy. An examination of the Mosaic laws against sexual impurity shows that they provided stringently for both sexes. The adulterer was punishable with death. A guilty wife in the discovery of her guilt dragged down her paramour (Leviticus 20:10).

II. THE WIFE'S POSITION IS RECOGNIZED. To punish her more severely for a lapse of conjugal fidelity was really to honour her, showing that in one respect more was expected from her. It became every Israelite to walk circumspectly; it peculiarly became the Israelite matron. May we not say that the spirit of jealousy, though it might often be manifested on insufficient grounds, was nevertheless in itself a provision of God, through nature? The reputation of a wife is a very delicate thing, and was meant so to be. The tenth commandment specifies, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife." Hence we may infer there was some temptation to men to commit this sin, and wives needed to be specially on their guard. The ordeal to which God called them, hard as it might seem, had a most honourable side. Let it not be said that Mosaic legislation showed the Oriental depreciation of woman. God was caring for her even then, but she had to partake of the severity of the law, even as, long after, represented by the woman taken in adultery, she shared in the clemency and tenderness of the gospel.

III. THE UNERRING DISCOVERY OF GUILT. God took the matter away out of the obscurities of circumstantial evidence. The very nature of the offence made it difficult for a suspicious husband to get beyond presumption. "The eye of the adulterer waiteth for the twilight" (Job 24:15). But God called the accused wife among the solemnities of the tabernacle, and concealment and evasion thenceforth became impossible. Notice how the ordeal was painless in itself. There was no walking on burning ploughshares nor demand on physical endurance. It was independent also of anything like chance, as if the casting of a lot had been held to settle the matter. The bitter water was drunk, and God, who brings all secret things into judgment, showed the indubitable proof in the swollen body and the rotted thigh. Proof, sentence, and punishment were all in one.

IV. THE DISCOVERY, EQUALLY UNERRING, OF INNOCENCE. One wonders what the history of this ordeal was in practice; how often used, and with what results. We know not what terrible tragedies it may have prevented, what credulous Othello it may have restored to his peace of mind, what Desdemona it may have vindicated, and what Iago it may have overthrown in his villainous plots. "God shall bring forth thy righteousness as the light, and thy judgment as the noonday" (Psalm 37:6). There will be a final clearing of all the innocent, however many have been condemned at a human bar. The whole matter assumes its most significant aspect when we note how the apostasy of God's people is figured by gross and shameful breaches of the marriage vow (Ezekiel 16). The doom of the adulterous wife foreshadows the doom of the backsliding believer. - Y.

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