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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 15

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-16

"The first of these laws had reference to the connection between meat-[meal-]offerings and drink-offerings on the one hand, and burnt-offerings and slain-[peace-]offerings on the other." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 3:100.]

The Israelites were to accompany every burnt offering and every peace offering with a meal offering and a drink offering of wine. The amounts of meal and wine varied, and these variations are clear in the text. An ephah was about half a bushel, and a hin was about a gallon. Since grapes were large and abundant in Canaan (cf. Numbers 13:23), wine played a significant part in Israel’s offerings. This offering expressed gratitude for the grapes of the land. The priests poured drink offerings out; they did not drink them.

The Apostle Paul spoke of his life as a drink offering poured out as a sacrifice to God (Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6).

Verses 1-31

Regulations concerning offerings and the penalty for defiant sin 15:1-31

"Chapter 15 is another collection of texts designed to prepare the people for their life in the land. Hence this chapter is one of promise. Though a great deal has happened, and the results are overwhelming for the adult population involved; nonetheless there is a sense in which we may say that nothing has happened. God has pardoned his people (Numbers 14:20), the second generation will enter the land (Numbers 14:31), and preparations still need to be made for that period after the Conquest and the achieving of ’normalcy’ in Canaan.

"It seems that the connecting thought between chapters 14 and 15 is the phrase in Numbers 15:2: ’when you enter the land of your dwelling places that I am giving to you’ (pers[onal] tr[anslation]). This ties to Numbers 14:31: ’I will bring them in to enjoy the land you have rejected.’" [Note: Allen, p. 824.]

"Lest there be the mistaken notion that the laws of Sinai, including the laws of offerings, had been abrogated or replaced, the Lord explicitly cited some of them again . . ." [Note: Jensen, p. 69.]

The Lord supplemented and completed the laws of sacrifice He had given formerly. These laws relate to life in the land (Numbers 15:1-2).

There are really seven laws in this pericope (Numbers 15:3-31). The first three are closely related, and we will consider them as one law. We can also combine the fifth and sixth laws and regard them as one, which I will refer to as the third.

Verses 1-41

Laws given during the 38 years of discipline chs. 15-19

Moses recorded few events during the years of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, but those he did preserve have instructive value. Most important among them is the rebellion of Korah’s group against Moses and Aaron, and God’s confirmation of the Aaronic priesthood that followed (chs. 16-18). The wilderness was part of God’s necessary child-training of His redeemed people, but the wanderings were not necessary. Nevertheless God still used these years to further educate His people.

The section that follows contains more regulations that look back to Kadesh and forward to Canaan. Their revelation is a confirmation that God had not cast off His people but would bring them into the Promised Land eventually.

Verses 17-21

The second law required the presentation of a cake made from the first-fruits of the land to God. The offerer was to lift it up before God and then give it to the priest. This offering expressed gratitude for the grain of the land.

Verses 22-29

The third law dealt with the sin offering. Here sins of omission are in view whereas the law in Leviticus 4:13-21 dealt more with sins of commission. In both cases the sin offering covered sins committed unintentionally. This law also covered some deliberate sins if the sinner offered public confession, full restitution, and a sin offering (Leviticus 6:1-7).

Verses 30-31

These offerings did not cover sins committed in defiance of God. In these cases the sinner was to die (Numbers 15:30-31). Moses recorded a case involving such a sin in the next section.

Verses 32-36

The case of the defiant Sabbath-breaker 15:32-36

This incident illustrates the fate of the Israelite or foreigner in Israel who deliberately violated the law of Sabbath observance. It clarifies the meaning of defiant sin as well as what it means to be "cut off from among his people" (Numbers 15:30-31). Violation of this law drew the death penalty (Exodus 31:14-15; Exodus 35:2). It as like the "unforgivable sin" in the New Testament in that there was no forgiveness of it. [Note: Mark Rooker, Leviticus, p. 55.] God revealed on this occasion that such an offender was to die by stoning (cf. Leviticus 20:2). Whereas Moses had previously recorded the penalty, he had not explained the method of execution (Numbers 15:34). Other occasions on which Moses had to ask God for guidance in difficult cases appear in Numbers 9:7-8; Numbers 27:1-11; and Leviticus 24:10-23.

"The purpose of these narratives is to show that God’s will is not expressed in a once-for-all way. In Israel’s ongoing relationship with God, he continued to make his will known to them, and they continued to play a part in the process." [Note: Sailhamer, p. 390.]

Sabbath observance was the sign of the Mosaic Covenant. To violate the Sabbath law deliberately amounted to repudiating God’s sovereignty.

"There are eleven offenses punishable by stoning according to the Old Testament: idolatry (Deuteronomy 17:2-7); encouragement of idolatry (Deuteronomy 13:6-10); child sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2-5); prophecy in the name of another god (Deuteronomy 13:1-5); divination (Leviticus 20:27); blasphemy (Leviticus 24:15-16); breaking the Sabbath (here); murder by an ox (Exodus 21:28-29); adultery (Deuteronomy 22:22 ff.); rebellion by a son (Deuteronomy 21:18 ff.); violation of God’s ban on plunder devoted to him (Joshua 7:25)." [Note: Riggans, p. 125.]

Verses 37-41

Visual reminders to keep the law 15:37-41

Perhaps God initiated this command in response to the incident of Sabbath-breaking just mentioned. The Israelites were to wear tassels on the four corners of their upper outer garments (Deuteronomy 22:12). The text does not explain the size of the tassels, but old pictures of tassels on garments that ancient Near Easterners wore show that they were about six inches long.

"The tassels were in fact extensions of the hem, as we learn from innumerable illustrations in ancient Near Eastern art.

"To understand the significance of the tassel, we must first understand the significance of the hem. . . . The hem of the outer garment or robe made an important social statement. It was usually the most ornate part of the garment. And the more important the individual, the more elaborate and the more ornate was the embroidery on the hem of his or her outer robe. . . .

"The significance of the hem and of its being cut off is reflected in a famous biblical episode [namely, when David cut off the hem of Saul’s robe; 1 Samuel 24]. . . .

"The requirement of a blue cord . . . in the tassels lends further support to the notion that the tassels signified nobility because the blue dye used to color the threads was extraordinarily expensive. . . .

"The Bible apparently assumed that even the poorest Israelite could afford at least four blue threads, one for each tassel. . . . Thus, weaving a blue thread . . . into the tassel enhances its symbolism as a mark of nobility.

"The tassel with a thread of blue signified more than royalty or nobility, however. It also signified the priesthood." [Note: Jacob Milgrom, "Of Hems and Tassels," Biblical Archaeology Review 9:3 (May-June 1983):61-65.]

The article just quoted also contains reproductions of ancient Near Eastern pictures of people wearing garments with tassels on them. The Israelite was to fasten the tassel to the garment with a blue thread, or it had to contain a blue thread. The blue color, as noted in our study of the tabernacle coverings, probably symbolized heavenly origin and royalty. Thus God apparently wanted the blue thread to remind the Israelites of their holy calling as a kingdom of priests. These tassels reminded the Israelites of their privileged position in the world and their noble and holy calling.

The tassels were clearly a visual aid for the Israelites and probably produced a conditioned response in the minds of pious Jews (cf. Deuteronomy 6:6-9). They did not bring to mind any one commandment but reminded the observer that he should observe all of God’s laws. He was distinct by virtue of his calling, as was the garment he observed. Perhaps God also chose the outer garment because the Israelites were as His outer garment by which the world recognized Him. His people were to be an adornment to Him (cf. Titus 2:10). Thus God specified something that would warn His people before they sinned; He did not just specify punishment after they sinned.

"There is an intentional selection behind the collections of laws found throughout the Pentateuch. The purpose of that selection appears clear enough. In reading through these laws we can readily see that God is concerned about every detail of human life. Nothing is too small or unimportant. It all has to be made available and dedicated to him." [Note: Sailhamer, p. 391.]

This legislation is the basis for the custom of wearing a tallis or prayer shawl that modern observant Jews still wear. It is also the basis for the flag of the modern state of Israel’s blue color.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Numbers 15". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/numbers-15.html. 2012.
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