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Friday, July 12th, 2024
the Week of Proper 9 / Ordinary 14
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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 5

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This chapter recounts the law regarding the exclusion of diseased and unclean persons from the camp of Israel (Numbers 5:1-4), the resolution of the problem of restitution in case of the death of the victim (Numbers 5:5-10), and the regulations for the trial of jealousies (Numbers 5:11-31), three or four paragraphs being devoted to the latter.

Questions usually arising from the text of this chapter include complaints that it does not seem to follow any plan, and wonderment that God should have included here the type of trial by ordeal which was so notoriously featured in the myths, superstitions, and pagan worship reaching back to the dawn of history.

Regarding the first of these questions, the “plan” of Numbers follows somewhat the pattern of a personal diary in which events appear in the sequence of their occurrence without regard to any identifiable connection with each other. For example, the supplementary law God gave here for the exclusion of unclean and diseased persons (Numbers 5:1-4) probably arose out of a situation in which earlier laws in the Pentateuch were somewhat ambiguous. The clarification appearing in this supplement is that all such persons were to be put out of the camp.

Regarding the laws regarding restitution (Numbers 5:5-10), the need for this probably arose from a situation in which a penitent confessed his sin and was prepared to make restitution to the person wronged, but in the meanwhile the death of that person left a situation that required further legislation, which God promptly gave.

With reference to the “pagan” type of ordeal seen in the rules for the trial by jealousies, the necessity for this could have come out of a situation where a jealous husband sought action against his wife. At that time, the world was full of “trials by ordeal”; and in order to prevent any Israelite from resorting to one of those infamous pagan ordeals, a very mild and harmless substitute for such trials was provided by God in the specific regulations given here. Any judgment of an adverse nature falling upon any woman subject to the “trial” in view here would have had to be the direct intervention of God Himself, a feature that opens an impassable gulf between the Mosaic laws and the mythical superstitions of paganism.

Thus, it appears that the continuing narrative in Numbers is a logical and valid part of the divine regulations that protected and guided Israel in the wilderness. The arrangement, throughout, could have been due to the chronological sequence in which the necessity for supplementary and additional rules appeared. Thus, we reject as pedantic and undependable the complaint of Gray that the events of this chapter have “little relation to one another.”(F1)

Verses 1-4

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Command the children of Israel, that they put out of the camp every leper, and every one that hath an issue, and whosoever is unclean by the dead: both male and female shall ye put out, without the camp shall ye put them; that they defile not their camp, in the midst whereof I dwell. And the children of Israel did so, and put them out without the camp; as Jehovah spake unto Moses, so did the children of Israel.”

When compared with the rules in Leviticus, it is evident that supplementary information is here supplied.

(1) The rule applies to females, as well as males.

(2) The reason for the exclusion is given in Numbers 5:3, that being the identity of their camp as the place where God Himself dwelt in their midst.

(3) There also appears the extension of including “all,” “every one” who had any kind of issue, as distinguished from those who had certain kinds only. “In Leviticus 15, where these defilements are treated, it is not expressly ordered that those thus polluted should be put out of the camp.”(F2) Jamieson remarked that

(4) the prevention of contagion was also a vital reason for these exclusions, the same being “almost the only instance in which any kind of attention is paid in the East to the prevention of contagion.”(F3)

How remarkably all of these instructions contrast with the gross filthiness and uncleanness that from the utmost antiquity has prevailed in pagan, uncivilized populations! God taught His people the value of cleanness. As Whitelaw said, “With the Jews, cleanliness was not next to godliness, it was “part of godliness!”(F4)

Verses 5-10

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, When a man or a woman shall commit any sin that men commit, so as to trespass against Jehovah, and that soul shall be guilty; then he shall confess his sin which he hath done: and he shall make restitution for his guilt in full, and add unto it the fifth part thereof, and give it unto him in respect of whom he hath been guilty. But if the man have no kinsman to whom restitution may be made for the guilt, the restitution for guilt which is made unto Jehovah shall be the priest’s; besides the ram of the atonement, whereby atonement shall be made for him. And every heave-offering of all the holy things of the children of Israel, which they present unto the priest, shall be his. And every man’s hallowed things shall be his: whatsoever any man giveth the priest, it shall be his.”

As pointed out above:

This regulation supplements the law contained in Leviticus 6:1-7, which, dealing with the restitution of property wrongfully appropriated, omits to explain how it is to be disposed of, if the owner has died without leaving any kinsman to whom restitution may be made.(F5)

“To commit a trespass against Jehovah” (Numbers 5:6). A very significant revelation here is the fact that all sins, against whomsoever committed, are not only sins against the persons wronged, but are also sins against Jehovah. “All sins against man are also sins against God.”(F6) How foolish it is to find in this revelation evidence of “late Jewish law,”(F7) supporting a view that this revelation came after the exile. This principle had been known for ages by the Jews, even long before Sinai. It will be remembered that when Joseph was tempted in the house of Potiphar in Egypt, that he resisted the desire of Potiphar’s wife, saying, “How can I sin against God, and do this wickedness?” (Genesis 39:9). Those scholars always seeking a “late date” will claim “evidence” everywhere, despite the non-existence of it.

“Besides the ram of atonement” (Numbers 5:8). “In Leviticus 5:16, this sacrifice is called the ram of the trespass offering, stressing man’s offense; here it is called the ram of the atonement, stressing God’s alienation.”(F8)

“Every heave-offering… shall be the priest’s… shall be his” (Numbers 5:9-10). “These verses prescribe that the heave-offerings, etc., are the perquisite of the particular priest who officiates and are not to be distributed among the priests generally.”(F9)

Verses 11-15

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man’s wife go aside, and commit a trespass against him, and a man lie with her carnally, and it be hid from the eyes of her husband, and be kept close, and she be defiled, and there be no witness against her, and she be not taken in the act; and the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be defiled: or if the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be not defiled: then shall the man bring his wife unto the priest, and shall bring her oblation for her, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense thereon; for it is a meal-offering of jealousy, a meal-offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance.”

This is one of the four remaining paragraphs in this chapter dealing with the trial by ordeal for jealousy. The vast difference between this ordeal and the countless ordeals of paganism is that this one “is not in itself injurious, but depends for its efficacy upon the direct interposition of God.”(F10) In the very language of this passage we have another evidence of Numbers having come from the times of Moses, NOT from a later date. “It is distinctly reminiscent of the forms of treatment prescribed by the Babylonian priest-physicians of the second millennium B.C.”(F11) A word of caution, however, is in order with regard to all suppositions that this ordeal was similar, except in the most superficial sense, to any of the pagan ordeals ever known. Yes, there were ordeals by water.

(1) In some of those ordeals, the person being tried was bound and weighted with heavy weights and thrown into a river; if he failed to come up he was declared to be innocent (though dead!); and if he floated, he was guilty!

(2) In others, the person tried was forced to plunge his hands into boiling water. If no damage resulted, the person was innocent. If a severe burn resulted, the person was declared guilty.

(3) There were other cases in which the defendant was compelled to pick up red-hot metal, or walk barefooted over burning coals, etc.

To refer to these “ordeals” as similar in any manner whatsoever to the non-injurious procedures outlined here is absolutely ridiculous. Even the allegedly similar ordeal attributed to the Code of Hammurabi,(F12) involved the grave possibility of the woman’s being drowned by throwing herself in the river, and would almost certainly have involved her death if the customary weights were affixed to her person, the verdict being guilty if she drowned, innocent if she survived. No, there is nothing really similar to this Biblical account in any of the fantastic “ordeals” which featured the myths and practices of paganism.

Even such a trial as this outlined in Numbers appears cruel to modern students, but as Ward suggested, “We should remember that other civilizations of that day considered it a proper way of determining guilt or innocence.(F13) This is a very significant fact, and it was probably for the purpose of rescuing his people from any reliance upon the prevalent style of “ordeals” that the benign and harmless procedures of this chapter were given.

“A tenth of an ephah of barley meal” (Numbers 5:15). Such meal-offerings were normally offered with oil and frankincense, but these were especially commanded to be omitted here. Why? “The usual meal-offering was an occasion of joyful thanksgiving, but this was a different situation.”(F14) The omission of these symbols of joy and thanksgiving, along with the designation of the water later as “bitter water,” pinpoints the fact of jealousy itself being an inglorious and bitter business. A tenth of an ephah was about seven pints.(F15)

Verses 16-22

“And the priest shall bring her near and set her before Jehovah: and the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water. And the priest shall set the woman before Jehovah, and let the hair of the woman’s head go loose, and put the meal-offering of memorial in her hands, which is the meal offering of jealousy: and the priest shall have in his hand the water of bitterness that causeth the curse. And the priest shall cause her to swear, and shall say unto the woman, If no man hath lain with thee, and if thou have not gone aside to uncleanness, being under thy husband, be thou free from this water of bitterness that causeth the curse: but if thou have gone aside, being under thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee besides thy husband: then the priest shall cause the woman to swear with the oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman, Jehovah make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when Jehovah doth make thy thigh to fall away, and thy body to swell; and this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, and make thy body to swell, and thy thigh to fall away. And the woman shall say, Amen, Amen.”

“Holy water” (Numbers 5:17). This is significant as the only use of this expression in the whole Bible.(F16) The most likely source of this was the holy laver which would have afforded an abundant water supply for the whole tabernacle. The notion that “it came from some holy spring” comes from the intention of making this whole chapter as pagan as possible. It is significant that the Septuagint (LXX) has “pure running water” here.

“Dust from the floor of the tabernacle” (Numbers 5:17). This was a symbol of “vileness and misery.”(F17) It will be recalled that the curse upon the serpent was that he should eat dust (Genesis 3:14). However, such dust in itself was perfectly harmless.

“Let the woman’s hair go loose” (Numbers 5:18). “As a person under suspicion, she was thus deprived of her dignity.”(F18)

Notice that different designations are used for the same item throughout the narrative. The water is called holy from its source, “water of bitterness,” after the curse that accompanied the drinking of it, and that the meal-offering is called the offering of jealousy after the occasion of it, and the offering of memorial after its bringing sin to remembrance.

“Being under thy husband” (Numbers 5:20; Numbers 5:29). Orlinsky notes that this should be translated, “If you have gone astray while married to your husband.”(F19)

“Amen, Amen” (Numbers 5:22). This solemn imprecation upon herself the woman was required to make in the stylized form of the oath, which she was not required to repeat, but merely to give assent by the double “Amen.” The significance of this is the extreme antiquity of this form of oath, which is the same as that of the mid-second millennium B.C., during which ages, “A Hittite soldier’s oath also required this affirmation.”(F20)

Verses 23-28

“And the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall blot them out into the water of bitterness: and he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that causeth the curse; and the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her and become bitter. And the priest shall take the meal-offering of jealousy out of the woman’s hand, and shall wave the meal-offering before Jehovah, and bring it unto the altar: and the priest shall take a handful of the meal-offering, as the memorial thereof, and burn it upon the altar, and afterward shall make the woman drink the water. And when he hath made her drink the water, then it shall come to pass, if she be defiled, and have committed a trespass against her husband, that the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her and become bitter, and her body shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away: and the woman shall be a curse among her people. And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed.”

We are amazed at Gray’s criticism of this passage thus: “In the present text, the woman is twice brought before Jehovah, twice made to swear, and twice, if not thrice, made to drink the potion. The text has either been interpolated, or rests on a compilation from two parallel but distinct sources.”(F21)

The double mention of bringing the woman “before Jehovah” records movement in the ceremony. In the first (Numbers 5:16) she is brought inside the tabernacle, and in the second (Numbers 5:18) she is seated. In the reference to the double swearing, there is a similar lack of discernment. In the first (Numbers 5:19) is recorded what the woman was to swear, but in the second (Numbers 5:22) the actual swearing is recorded in the form of the double “Amen.” The allegation that she was required to drink the potion twice is also an error. In these instructions, it is recorded that the priest was to make the woman drink the bitter water (Numbers 5:24-26), but in the same breath with this commandment is the word that she was to drink it afterward from the moment that the handful of the meal-offering had been burnt upon the altar (Numbers 5:26). One certainly has to have a fertile imagination to find all those “doubles” in this record.

“Blot them out into the water of bitterness” This refers to writing the curse on book paper and then washing it off into the bitter water.(F22) The ink that was used would then blend with the water, along with the dust, adding to the symbolism.

“A curse and an oath among thy people” Note that the death penalty is not to be enforced here, no matter if the accused was guilty. The reason for this appears in the fact that, “In such cases, the sin was punishable by the death of both the man and the woman (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22).”(F23) A number of commentators have overlooked this, but right here is the basis for Jesus’ refusal to condemn the unfortunate woman taken in adultery (John 8). It would have been grossly unfair to condemn only one of two participants in such a sin, and the text here makes it clear enough that “the other guilty party” (if indeed there was guilt) was simply unavailable.

Verses 29-31

“This is the law of jealousy, when a wife, being under her husband, goeth aside, and is defiled, or when the spirit of jealousy cometh upon a man, and he is jealous of his wife, then shall he set the woman before Jehovah, and the priest shall execute upon her all this law. And the man shall be free from iniquity, and that woman shall bear her iniquity.”

“The man shall be free from iniquity” (Numbers 5:31). This means that no guilt would be attached to a man who thus subjected his wife to trial, even though she should be declared innocent. Some commentators take an opposite view, supposing that, in case the trial resulted in the death penalty for the woman, the husband would be free of blame. We find no basis for agreement with that view.

This short paragraph is only a summary of the whole law on this ordeal. Before leaving this, we stress once more that, “It was ever the wisdom of God, as revealed in the sacred volume, to take men as they were, and to utilize the superstitious notions that could not at once be destroyed.”(F24) At the time of the giving of the Pentateuch, trials by ordeals were deeply rooted in the customs of all mankind, and well-nigh universal. The Israelites themselves were strongly biased in favor of such things, but this law of jealousies incorporated here was brought into the Mosaic system, “in order to free it from the idolatrous rites practiced by the heathen.”(F25)

There is no Biblical record of any person’s ever having had recourse to this ordeal in order to procure a verdict either of guilt or of innocence, and therefore, it seems logical to conclude that it stands in the sacred text more as a foil against pagan superstitions than as anything else.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Numbers 5". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/numbers-5.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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