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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 15

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This chapter and the next four (through Numbers 19) provide a brief account of what happened in Israel during the next 38 years. How pitifully short is this grand summary of all that was worth writing of those long tragic years in which God simply waited for a faithless generation to die in order that another generation could seize and exploit the golden opportunity which their predecessors forfeited through cowardice and unbelief. And, what is recorded is, in major part, negative. How often in the progress of Christianity has God simply had to WAIT until someone died before any further progress could be registered! A thousand congregations today occupy the same status of having to wait until certain faithless and short-sighted leaders have passed over the river. It is futile to seek any exact dates for events and revelations in these chapters. “While the children of Israel were in the wilderness” (Numbers 15:32) is the only date given, the same being the period after the rebellion of Numbers 14 and until just prior to their entry into Canaan.

Gray’s outline of the chapter is as good as any:(F1)

(1) Revelation of the proper quantities of meal, oil and wine to be offered in certain sacrifices (Numbers 15:1-16).

(2) Concerning the cake of “the first of [~`aricoth] (Numbers 15:17-21).

(3) Requirements for the offerings to be made for sins of ignorance: (a) by the community, or (b) by individuals (Numbers 15:23-31).

(4) The proper method of execution for the capital crime of breaking the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36).

(5) Commandments regarding the [~taliyth] and the tassels ([~tsitsith]) to be affixed to it (Numbers 15:37-41).

Verses 1-10

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye are come into the land of your habitations, which I give unto you, and will make an offering by fire unto Jehovah, a burnt-offering, or a sacrifice, to accomplish a vow, or as a freewill-offering, or in your set feasts, to make a sweet savor unto Jehovah, of the herd, or of the flock; then shall he that offereth his oblation offer unto Jehovah a meal-offering of a tenth part of an ephah of fine flour mingled with the fourth part of a hin of oil: and wine for the drink-offering, the fourth part of a hin, shalt thou prepare with a burnt-offering, or for the sacrifice, for each lamb. Or for a ram, thou shalt prepare for a meal-offering, two tenth parts of an ephah of fine flour mingled with the third part of a hin of oil: and for the drink-offering thou shalt offer the third part of a hin of wine, of a sweet savor unto Jehovah. And when thou preparest a bullock for a burnt-offering, or for a sacrifice, to accomplish a vow, or for peace-offerings unto Jehovah; then shall he offer with the bullock a meal-offering of three tenth parts of an ephah of fine flour mingled with half a hin of oil: and thou shalt offer for the drink-offering half a hin of wine, for an offering made by fire, of a sweet savor unto Jehovah.”

For a full discussion of the several kinds of sacrifices mentioned here reference is made to our commentary on Leviticus. It is not the character of those sacrifices that is in view here, but certain regulations concerning the amount in each case of the satellite offerings that accompanied those sacrifices, namely, the meal-offerings, the oil-offerings, and the drink-offerings (wine). Note that these are graduated, corresponding to the size and value of the animals offered. In the three situations enumerated here, the meal-offering increases from the lesser to the greater as one fourth, one third, and one half of an ephah of fine flour. And the amount of oil increases in the same ratio from the lesser to the greater as one fourth, one third, and one half of a hin. Inherent in these gradations is the principle that men should give “as the Lord has prospered them,” the same principle being carried over more specifically into the N.T.

If one wonders why these specifics concerning meal, oil and wine were here spelled out in such detail, it is because “no fixed amounts were prescribed” at the time the laws were given.(F2)

“The laws here are addressed to the new generation,”(F3) the condemned generation apparently being ignored altogether, as indicated by the words, “When ye are come into the land of your habitations” (Numbers 15:2). This is also an indication of a very probable time-lapse between this and the last chapter.

Another important indication of these verses is that the children of Israel did not scrupulously keep God’s laws in the matter of all these ceremonial requirements during their wilderness sojourn. They did not circumcise their children (Joshua 5). They did not offer the required sacrifices (Amos 5:25). They continued in idolatry. “Ye have borne… the shrine of your images, the star of your god which ye made yourselves” (Amos 5:26). They even worshipped “the host of heaven” (the sun, moon and stars) (Acts 7:42-43).

“When ye are come into the land” Yes, a whole nation had rebelled, but God’s purpose remained unchanged and would be fulfilled in spite of their defection; and these words have the effect of adding assurance to that second generation that the unfaithfulness of their fathers would in no wise nullify God’s promise as it pertained to themselves. Thus, it ever is. If an individual, or a community, or a state, or even the whole world shall rebel against God, God’s WILL will still be done, and those who succeed them may indeed through fidelity possess the blessing that others rejected.

Verses 11-16

“Thus shall it be done for each bullock, or for each ram, or for each of the he-lambs, or of the kids. According to the number which ye shall prepare, so shall ye do to every one according to their number. All that are home-born shall do these things after this manner, in offering an offering made by fire, of a sweet savor unto Jehovah. And if a stranger sojourn with you, or whosoever may be among you throughout your generations, and will offer an offering made by fire, of a sweet savor unto Jehovah; as ye do, so he shall do. For the assembly, there shall be one statute for you and for the stranger that sojourneth with you, a statute for ever throughout your generations: as ye are, so shall the sojourner be before Jehovah. One law and one ordinance shall be for you, and for the stranger that sojourneth with you.”

“There shall be one statute (Numbers 15:15)… one law (Numbers 15:16)” When the situation of Israel at the time this was written is considered, especially the fact of their being in the midst of and surrounded by nations steeped in idolatry, “We can see the absolute necessity of having one form of worship in the land. That alone was genuine which was prescribed by God Almighty, and no others could be tolerated, because they were idolatrous.”(F4)

“One statute… before Jehovah” The equality of all people before the law is one of the sacred foundations of all civilized order, and like so many other of the value-judgments of civilized man, the foundation of it must be traced to the Holy Bible. When the Prince of India asked Queen Victoria, “What is the secret of England’s greatness?” she replied, “The English Bible is the secret of England’s greatness.” Furthermore, wherever greatness may exist, the enabling value-judgments have the same source.

Verses 17-21

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye come into the land whither I bring you, then it shall be, that when ye eat of the bread of the land, ye shall offer up a heave-offering unto Jehovah. Of the first of your dough ye shall offer up a cake for a heave-offering: as the heave-offering of the threshing-floor, so shall ye heave it. Of the first of your dough ye shall give unto Jehovah a heave-offering throughout your generations.”

“The word [~`aricoth], here rendered “dough,” is obscure; and the use of cake in Numbers 15:20 favors the view that it is some kind of cereal food prepared in the home.”(F5)

“A heave-offering” refers to the lifting of the sacrifice in the front of the altar to show that it was given unto Jehovah, and the bringing of it downward was to indicate God’s giving it back to the offerer. All of these various ceremonies were discussed in the early chapters of Leviticus.

Verses 22-26

“And when ye shall err, and not observe all these commandments, which Jehovah hath spoken unto Moses, even all that Jehovah hath commanded you by Moses, from the day that Jehovah gave commandment, and onward throughout your generations; then it shall be, if it be done unwittingly, without the knowledge of the congregation, that all the congregation shall offer one young bullock for a burnt-offering, for a sweet savor unto Jehovah, with the meal-offering thereof, and the drink offering thereof, according to the ordinance, and one he-goat for a sin-offering. And the priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the children of Israel, and they shall be forgiven; for it was an error, and they have brought their oblation, an offering made by fire unto Jehovah, and their sin-offering before Jehovah, for their error: and all the congregation of the children of Israel shall be forgiven, and the stranger that sojourneth among them; for in respect of all the people it was done unwittingly.”

The instructions here pertain to unintentional sins, or sins through error, in the case of the whole congregation. Beginning in the next verse, the case of individual sins, not involving the congregation, but committed unwittingly, are discussed.

“According to the ordinance” (Numbers 15:25). This means according to the ordinance already laid down in the Scriptures in the early chapters of Leviticus. In those chapters, no allowance was made for unintentional error, or sins.

Verses 27-31

“And if one person sin unwittingly, then he shall offer a she-goat a year old for a sin-offering. And the priest shall make atonement for the soul that erreth, when he sinneth unwittingly, before Jehovah, to make atonement for him; and he shall be forgiven. Ye shall have one law for him that doeth aught unwittingly, for him that is home-born among the children of Israel, and for the stranger that sojourneth among them. But the soul that doeth aught with a high hand, whether he be home-born, or a sojourner, the same blasphemeth Jehovah; and that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Because he hath despised the word of Jehovah, and hath broken his commandment, that soul shall utterly be cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him.”

This gives the regulations for individual sins: (a) in the instance of their having been committed unwittingly; and (b) in case they were “high handed” sins committed presumptuously and flagrantly.

“High hand” indicates the challenging of authority. Thus, when God brought Israel out of Egypt with a “high hand,” it was a frontal challenge of all the gods of Egypt. Similarly, when one who with “a high hand” disobeys the specific commandment of God, it constitutes a challenge of Divine authority, called “blasphemy” in Numbers 15:30. It is also “despising” God’s Word (Numbers 15:31). In this connection, we should recall what the N.T. says of a presumptuous violation of God’s command for Christians not to neglect the assembling of themselves together:

“Not forsaking our own assembling ourselves together… For if we sin willfully, after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fierceness of fire that shall devour the adversaries… he hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant wherewith he was sanctified an holy thing, and hath done despite unto (despised) the Spirit of grace” (Hebrews 10:25-29).

A reading of the whole passage just cited makes it absolutely certain that the sacred N.T. writer had this very passage in mind when the passage was given.

The following verses at once record an instance of such a willful and presumptuous sin in the case of the sabbath-breaker.

Verses 32-36

“And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks upon the sabbath day. And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and unto Aaron, and unto all the congregation. And they put him in ward, because it had not been declared what should be done to him. And Jehovah said unto Moses, The man shall surely be put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp. And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him to death with stones; as Jehovah commanded Moses.”

“While the children of Israel were in the wilderness” This does not indicate a date for Numbers after their settlement in Canaan, but has the utility of placing this incident within the period of the 38 years sojourn in the wilderness following the rebellion at Kadesh. It applies to all of the events recorded here through Numbers 19.

“It had not been declared what should be done with him” Again the critics find a basis for alleged “contradiction,” because, as they say, the death penalty indeed had already been assigned for sabbath-breaking in the Book of Exodus. Yes, indeed! But the regulation there had not specified what manner of death was to be inflicted. Thus, the uncertainty of how the death penalty was to be executed was the cause of their inquiry before Moses in this passage. God promptly REAFFIRMED the sentence laid down in Exodus and ordered execution of the sabbath-breaker by stoning, the whole congregation to attend it, and the execution to be “without (outside) the camp.” God’s command was promptly obeyed.

Verses 37-41

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of each border a cord of blue: and it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of Jehovah, and do them; and that ye follow not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to play the harlot; that ye may remember and do all my commandments, and be holy unto your God. I am Jehovah your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am Jehovah your God.”

The Jews enumerated the commandments of God as 613, and the garment selected by them for the application of this regulation was the [~taliyth], or prayer shawl, and Orthodox Jews still observe this, with one exception. Uncertainty as to the exact color of blue for the cord, and the scarcity of the sea shell from which the supposed color was manufactured led them to substitute a white cord for the blue cord. It is significant that Jesus Christ himself observed this. See Matthew 9:20, where it is stated that the woman sought to touch “the border of his garment.” Adam Clarke noted that this should probably be understood “as the fringe, rather than as the hem or border.”(F6)

The [~taliyth] to which the fringe was attached was an oblong rectangular garment with a hole in the center for the head, much in the manner of the “poncho” seen in Latin America.

This device was psychological. By associating the commandments of God with the very garment of men, it naturally led to a more faithful remembrance and observance of the Divine commandments. Today, the Orthodox Jew wears this garment at all religious services. And when he dies, he is wrapped in it for his burial. The garment utilized multiple knots in the fringe in order to be able to identify each thread (with the knots), and each knot with a particular commandment.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Numbers 15". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/numbers-15.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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