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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 15

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary


Chapter 15 Hope For The Future.

The change of subject which now follows is so forceful, vivid and emphatic, that it is worth sitting and reading it with that in mind in order to gain its impression. It is awesome. The next thirty eight years is left as a blank. Yahweh is portrayed as simply passing on to speak to the next generation. Calmly He says, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, When you are come into the land of your habitations, which I am giving to you.” The present generation, which will not be allowed to enter the land, is just to be ignored. There is no room for argument. The matter is seen as settled. And He gives to the new up-and-coming generation instructions for them to observe once they were in the land.

It is as though the present generation did not exist. It was seen as written off. But behind His words was an assurance, an assurance to their children that they as the next generation would enter the land and be established in their habitations, and that they would have plentiful grain and wine to offer. They need not fear for He was still with them, and the land would be theirs.

And His words were the ones that they wanted to hear, for He declared to them that in those days their offerings would be acceptable to Him. They would be His true people once again, as they fulfilled His commandments concerning the offerings and sacrifices, and especially the grain and wine offerings. These would be a sign of the fact that they were Yahweh’s people in Yahweh’s land. They had not been utterly cast off. The restoration of and building up of their faith was now beginning.


In this section, which is a way of covering the period of the ‘penal’ wandering in the wilderness subsequent to expulsion from the land of Canaan by the Amorites, Yahweh’s provision for Israel’s dealings with Him are laid bare. He wanted them to know that while they would be subjected to discipline and chastening, they, unlike their fathers, had not been rejected, and this was made apparent by the provisions that follow.

These provisions were:

a Provision was made for their walk before Him as His people, with offerings and sacrifices being offered once they were in the land and reminders of the covenant being worn on their clothing (Numbers 15:0).

b Provision was made for an authenticated priesthood of which there could be no doubt, made clear by the attempted coup by Korah and by the rod that budded, a priesthood that could effectively plead for them before Yahweh (Numbers 16-17).

b Provision was made for the priests and Levites to serve the Sanctuary and maintain its holiness, with special emphasis on the new level of tithes that would become available in the land for their maintenance (Numbers 18:0).

a Provision was made for the ‘water of uncleanness’ to be provided for cleansing so they could walk before Him free from all taint of death. This new generation was the generation that would ‘live’ (Numbers 19:0).

Thus their future would be secure. We will now look at all this in more detail.

Verses 1-16

Chapter 15 Provision Made For Their Walk Before Yahweh: offerings and sacrifices.

In this chapter provision is made for the marking off of Israel as Yahweh’s and how sins, both deliberate and unwitting, are to be dealt with.

1). Marking Israel as His and Calling For A Commitment To Keep His Commandments (Numbers 15:1-41 ).

As we have suggested, the first of God’s four provisions for the future lay in a call to walk before Him. This would include a) offering to Him offerings and sacrifices of continual dedication to Him for dedication and atonement, b) offering continually purification for sin offerings for the removal of sin, c) avoiding presumptuous sin, and d) the wearing of what would be a continual reminder of the need to keep His commandments by having tassels on the fringes of their garments. We must now look at these one by one.

These also are presented in a chiastic manner..

a Offerings to Yahweh - a commitment to keeping His commandments (Numbers 15:1-16).

b Dealing with unwitting sin (Numbers 15:17-31).

b Dealing with presumptuous sin (Numbers 15:32-36).

a Tassels on the fringes of their garments - a commitment to keeping His commandments (Numbers 15:37-41).

We shall consider them one by one.

i). Offerings and Sacrifices to Yahweh.

Numbers 15:1

‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying,’

Again it is emphasised that we have here words spoken by Yahweh to Moses.

Numbers 15:2

Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, When you are come into the land of your habitations, which I am giving to you,”

Dismissing the wilderness generation and the period in the wilderness almost without a further glance (although see Numbers 16-17) Yahweh now gave instruction to the future generation for when they entered the land and established their habitations, in the land which He was giving them, thus confirming that they would eventually do so. They were then to offer to Yahweh regular offerings of dedication and atonement, both individually and as a nation. The emphasis here is on the grain and drink offerings which would gain in prominence once they were farming their own land and growing their own vineyards. They would no longer be just ‘shepherds’ (Numbers 14:33).

Numbers 15:3-4

And will make an offering by fire to Yahweh, a whole burnt offering, or a sacrifice, to accomplish a vow, or as a freewill-offering, or in your set feasts, to make a pleasing odour to Yahweh, of the herd, or of the flock, then shall he who offers his oblation offer to Yahweh a grain offering of a tenth part of an ephah of milled wheat grain mingled with the fourth part of a hin of oil,”

An offering by fire was one that brought a pleasing odour to Yahweh by being offered up on the altar. In the case of the whole burnt offering it was wholly offered up, an indication of total dedication and desire for atonement, a being made ‘at one’ with Him. For details see Leviticus 1:0. In the case of peace (wellbeing) offerings they were also to foster fellowship with Yahweh by eating before Him. For details see Leviticus 3:0; Leviticus 7:11-21; Leviticus 7:29-36.

Whole burnt offerings were offered daily in the morning and evening sacrifices (Numbers 28:3-8; Exodus 29:38-42), and they were offered at set feasts. The most vital one of the year was made at the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:0). They could also be offered individually for the whole congregation, for priests and for the different levels of society as an act of free worship (Leviticus 1:0). They were a continual recommitment to Yahweh; to Him, to His covenant and to His commandments.

Of the grain offerings that went with them a portion was burned on the altar and the remainder belonged to the priests. The only exception was of a grain offering made by the priest (Leviticus 6:23). What belonged to the priests was ‘most holy’. It could only be partaken of by them.

The peace offerings were also offered at set feasts. Their main purpose was of thanksgiving, but they could also be either in order to accomplish a vow, or given as a freewill offering of love and worship, although again containing an element of atonement. In all cases they were a bringing to Him of tribute and acknowledgement of His Overlordship.

Both types of offering, whole burnt offerings and peace offerings, were to be accompanied by a grain offering mingled with oil. This is described in Leviticus 2:0. While all the animal offerings reflected gratitude for what God had given them, and continued to give them as more and more were born, the grain offering would also include an element of gratitude for the rain and an offering of their labour to Yahweh as revealed in the grain offering. Much work had been necessary in order to produce milled grain. See our commentary on Leviticus 2:0. Little of such could take place in the wilderness as they moved around, but once they were settled in the land it would involve a large part of their lives.

While the grain offering was equally as prominent in Leviticus as the other offerings, little was said about the quantity of grain that should be offered. But once they were in the land it was to be measured and multiplied at every offering and sacrifice. This would be because grain was then so plentiful because of Yahweh’s goodness towards them. No better indication of future prosperity could be given.

Numbers 15:5

And wine for the drink offering, the fourth part of a hin, shall you prepare with the whole burnt offering, or for the sacrifice, for each lamb.”

With the grain offering should also be offered wine for a drink offering which should accompany each offering or sacrifice. The redness of the wine was probably seen as symbolising blood, and the wine itself part of that provision by God for which they were showing gratitude. From Exodus 30:9 it is clear that it was poured on the altar in some way, but we have no further details. This made clear that in days to come they would have vineyards overflowing with grapes.

Numbers 15:6-7

Or for a ram, you shall prepare for a grain offering two tenth parts of an ephah of milled wheat grain mingled with the third part of a hin of oil, and for the drink offering you shall offer the third part of a hin of wine, of a pleasing odour to Yahweh.”

Where, however, a ram was offered, in the case of set feasts where it was laid down as the requirement, and in the case of the individual offering either as laid down or by choice, then the grain and drink offerings had to be larger as befitted the offering.

Numbers 15:8-10

And when you prepare an ox bull for a whole burnt offering, or for a sacrifice, to accomplish a vow, or for peace-offerings to Yahweh, then shall he offer with the ox bull a grain offering of three tenth parts of an ephah of milled wheat grain mingled with half a hin of oil. And you shall offer for the drink offering half a hin of wine, for an offering made by fire, of a pleasing odour to Yahweh.”

When the offering was an ox bull the grain offering and drink offering had to be twice as large, as befitted such an offering. This multiplication of the grain and drink offering stresses the prosperity that would be theirs in the land.

Numbers 15:11-12

Thus shall it be done for each ox bull, or for each ram, or for each of the he-lambs, or of the kids. According to the number that you shall prepare, so shall you do to every one according to their number.”

And these grain and drink offerings as prescribed were to be offered with each animal offering. This would become possible because the land would become theirs.

Numbers 15:13

All who are homeborn shall do these things after this manner, in offering an offering made by fire, of a pleasing odour to Yahweh.”

This practise was to be carried out by all who were homeborn. They were to make their offerings by fire as a pleasing odour to Yahweh, and with them they were to offer their grain and their wine for they would enjoy prosperity in the land.

Numbers 15:14

And if a stranger temporarily resides with you, or whoever may be among you throughout your generations, and will offer an offering made by fire, of a pleasing odour to Yahweh; as you do, so he shall do.”

And any foreigner or resident alien who came among them could also make offerings to Yahweh. And they too would offer in the same way as the homeborn.

Numbers 15:15-16

For the assembly, there shall be one statute for you, and for the stranger who resides temporarily among you, a statute for ever throughout your generations. As you are, so shall the resident alien be before Yahweh. One law and one ordinance shall be for you, and for the stranger who resides temporarily with you.”

All were to be equal in their offerings, both homeborn and foreigner. All would be welcome to worship Him. All were to operate under the same law following the same practise. In the new land worship of Yahweh would be available to all.

Verses 17-29

ii) The Contribution or Heave-offering and dealing with Unwitting Sin (Numbers 15:17-29 ).

The stress continues to be on the fruit of the ground. Hope for the future was being piled up for the younger generation. One day they, unlike their fathers, would enjoy the full blessing of living in the land. But the passage then goes on to deal with the purification from unwitting sin, for that would be necessary if they were to remain in the land.

Numbers 15:17

‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying,’

Again it is stressed that these were Yahweh’s words spoken to Moses.

Numbers 15:18-19

Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, ‘When you come into the land to which I bring you, then it shall be, that, when you eat of the bread of the land, you shall offer up a heave-offering (or ‘contribution’) to Yahweh,”

Once again the emphasis is on when they would enter the land, and on the fruitfulness that they would then enjoy. When the children of Israel entered the land, when they were enjoying the bread of the land as they abundantly would, then they were to offer up a portion as a contribution or heave-offering (an offering set aside for the priests and presented to Him) to Yahweh as a token of His Overlordship.

Numbers 15:20-21

Of the first of your dough you shall offer up a cake for a heave-offering, as the heave-offering of the threshing-floor, so shall you heave it. Of the first of your dough you shall give to Yahweh a heave-offering throughout your generations.”

They were to offer it as firstfruits from the first of their dough, by offering a cake for a heave-offering/contribution. And this was to apply into the distant future.

But they could not do this if they were guilty of unwitting sin, for that would be to deny His Overlordship, and that was why the problem of purification of unwitting sin is now dealt with.

Provision for Unwitting Sin (Numbers 15:22-29 ).

The distinction is made between ‘unwitting sin’ and ‘sin with a high hand’. The former which is described as ‘erring’ would therefore seem to include sins done by choice because drawn astray by desire or folly, except when it was in deliberate disobedience to a major commandment (the example of observing the Sabbath is given). We all know what it means to say, ‘I could not help myself’, even when we know we should not have done it. In the end only God can tell whether sin is through weakness or in deliberate defiance against God.

Numbers 15:22-23

And when you shall err, and not observe all these commandments, which Yahweh has spoken to Moses, even all that Yahweh has commanded you by Moses, from the day that Yahweh gave commandment, and onward throughout your generations,”

Note the emphasis on being commanded. The commandments were not optional, or acceptable if say 5 out of 10 were kept. They were commanded threefold by Yahweh, and were permanent and to be kept in their totality (compare Deuteronomy 27:26; James 2:10). Thus to err from them was a grave matter.

Numbers 15:24

Then it shall be, if it be done unwittingly, without the knowledge of the congregation, that all the congregation shall offer one young ox bull for a whole burnt offering, for a pleasing odour to Yahweh, with its grain offering, and its drink offering, according to the ordinance, and one he-goat for a purification for sin offering.”

The first case is an unwitting sin done by the whole congregation. This might refer to an accidental error made by their representatives the priests with regard to offerings and Dwellingplace service, acting on their behalf, which was later discovered, or to a decision come to by the assembly of Israel which was considered right at the time but later seen to be wrong, or a capital crime committed among them of which the culprit was unknown, or an act done on their behalf by their chieftains of which they were unaware. In all these cases it was something that they had not known about. There was no direct involvement. If it was unwitting and without the knowledge of the congregation they still bore guilt, for the whole community were jointly responsible. But it could be atoned for by a whole burnt offering offered on behalf of the whole congregation, consisting of an ox bull for the purpose of atonement and rededication, and by a purification for sin offering of a he-goat. The whole burnt offering, accompanied by its grain offerings and drink offering, would rise as a pleasing odour to Yahweh. The sin offering would remove the guilt through the death and offering of the blood of the animal.

In Leviticus 4:14 a sin by the whole congregation required the purification for sin offering of an ox bull. But that may refer to sins in which the whole congregation had deliberately participated suspecting them to be wrong, even though ‘the assembly’ was not aware of them, or sins done deliberately in their name by their chieftains of which they approved. There was thus a deeper involvement in the guilt. The offering required was therefore all the greater.

Or it may be that the offerings were seen together. A bull ox and a he-goat together were of more value than an ox alone. Thus if the whole burnt offering of an ox bull was made additionally, it is possible that that could be seen as compensating for the reduction in the purification for sin offering. For both contributed to atonement, and both were brought for their error (Numbers 15:25). We must remember that this was referring to what was to be done when they entered the land (Numbers 15:2) whereas Leviticus 4:0 was immediate. Perhaps the idea was that once they were more prosperous, more would be required. (We must also remember that the details of the cult were undoubtedly complicated, and that we have probably only been given an outline of such activities. Different situations would be seen as calling for different offerings as determined by the Priest).

Numbers 15:25

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 to Yahweh, and their purification for sin offering before Yahweh for their error,”

And the error would then be atoned for and forgiven, because firstly it was an error, and secondly they had brought the appropriate offerings.

Numbers 15:26

And all the congregation of the children of Israel shall be forgiven, and the stranger that resides temporarily among them, for in respect of all the people it was done unwittingly.”

It is again repeated that they would be forgiven. The double emphasis made the fact certain. And the forgiveness would cover the resident alien who dwelt among them. And the reason for this would be that it was done unwittingly.

Numbers 15:27

And if one person sins unwittingly, then he shall offer a she-goat a year old for a purification for sin offering.”

The same was to apply to a person who sinned unwittingly. But in that case he was simply required to bring a year old she-goat for a purification for sin offering.

Numbers 15:28

And the priest shall make atonement for the person who errs, when he sins unwittingly, before Yahweh, to make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven.”

Thus would the priest make atonement for the person, because he had sinned unwittingly, and he would be forgiven. It is clear that this could not have been done for every sin of thought, word and deed that came to mind or all the herds and flocks of the population would rapidly have disappeared. It was for definite sins against specific covenant stipulations that were recognised as being so and were not premeditated, or if premeditated not taking on the character of aggression against God and His creation. (Thus the sins included theft from a neighbour, which had however to be dealt with in a special way including compensation, but not murder or adultery, both of which were against the very order of creation).

Numbers 15:29

You shall have one law for him who does anything unwittingly, for him who is homeborn among the children of Israel, and for the stranger who resides temporarily among them.”

The law was to be the same for all whether homeborn or foreigners. All who came to dwell among the Israelites entered into a kind of relationship with Yahweh, and were to be treated equally.

It must be recognised that we are only provided with the bare bones of the sacrificial system and its application. Decisions would have to be made about a wide range of sins, and they would no doubt be sorted into categories and the level of sacrifice decided accordingly. What the written law laid down were the principles to be kept in mind. The actual carrying of it into practise would be extremely complicated, and would be built up over time.

Behind all these offerings and sacrifices were the thought of the shedding of blood, with the animal as their representative, bearing their sin; and the thought of tribute and thanksgiving offered, and of dedication and reconciliation through atonement as they brought their offerings. Each offering and sacrifice pinpointed one aspect of that response to God, and unknowingly looked forward to that greater provision in Jesus Christ. Today we come in the same way but through a greater and more efficacious offering in our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, Who died in our place, and bore our sin (Romans 3:25; Romans 5:8-10; Romans 8:3; 1 Corinthians 5:7; 2Co 5:21 ; 1 Peter 1:19; 1 Peter 2:14; 1 Peter 3:18; Hebrews 9:11-14; Hebrews 9:26; Hebrews 10:10-18; Hebrews 12:24; Hebrews 13:12), and through Whom we offer ourselves as a living sacrifice, through Him being made wholly acceptable to God (Romans 12:1-2).

Verses 30-36

iii) Provision in Respect of Sin With a High Hand (Numbers 15:30-36 ).

Numbers 15:30

But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he be homeborn or a resident alien, the same blasphemes Yahweh, and that person shall be cut off from among his people.”

Those, however, who sinned with a high hand, would not receive forgiveness. This refers to specific sins against the commandments which were premeditated and deliberately carried through in defiance of God. It applied specifically to sins which directly affected Yahweh’s sovereignty and were against creation, and thus included murder, idolatry, adultery and Sabbath-breaking. Such a person was blaspheming Yahweh and despising His word. He was being ‘high handed’.

Numbers 15:31

Because he has despised the word of Yahweh, and has broken his commandment, that person shall utterly be cut off. His iniquity shall be on him.”

And because he had despised Yahweh’s word and deliberately with forethought broken His commandment in defiance of Yahweh, that person was to be cut off from among the people. The primary responsibility for carrying out the sentence was Yahweh’s. The person would not escape. But where the congregation were aware of the sin they were to assist in the cutting off. The example that follows demonstrates that that meant the death sentence.

Numbers 15:32

‘And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the sabbath day.’

The example is given of a man found gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. This was described as ‘while in the wilderness’ demonstrating how much the writer is elsewhere projecting forward in his mind into the land. Such an act was deliberate, was against what he knew to be God’s requirement, and was done in defiance of the Law and was, as he was aware, a sin against the very basis of creation. No one had ever yet been punished for it and he probably felt that he could get away with it. But it was in open defiance of Yahweh, and a challenge to His name and position. It was high treason. It was a sin against what all knew to be sacred, against what belonged to Yahweh. It could not be allowed to go unpunished, and the punishment had to be severe.

Numbers 15:33

‘And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron, and to all the congregation.’

Those who found him committing his sin brought him to Moses and Aaron. They recognised that this was not a local matter but affected the whole camp, for it could bring down Yahweh’s anger on the camp.

Numbers 15:34

‘And they put him in ward, because it had not been declared what should be done to him.’

But because this was the first case of the kind and not strictly covered by the law they put him under guard so that Yahweh could be consulted. What was forbidden was daily work and lighting a fire on the Sabbath day (Exodus 35:2-3). He could have argued that he was not working, which might have been debatable, but it was quite clear that the man would not have gathered the sticks unless he intended to light a fire. Thus he was in their eyes intending to break the law.

Numbers 15:35

‘And Yahweh said to Moses, “The man shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.”

Yahweh’s verdict was quickly given. He knew the whole truth about the man’s motives. The man was to be put to death. He had openly flouted God. All the congregation were to take part for he had sinned against the congregation. They were to stone him with stones. Thus they would not touch him and render themselves unclean by their action. And it was to be done outside the camp so that the camp was not made unclean.

Numbers 15:36

‘And all the congregation brought him outside the camp, and stoned him to death with stones, as Yahweh commanded Moses.’

And the whole congregation did as Yahweh commanded. They brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones as Yahweh had commanded Moses. This was the way in which all high handed sin was to be dealt with.

Further examples of high-handed sins appear in the next chapter, for Korah, Dathan and Abiram were guilty of high-handed sin. But there it would be Yahweh Who meted out the penalty.

This was not to say that no sin with a high hand could ever be forgiven, only that no provision was made for it through the sacrificial system (Psalms 51:16-17). Rarely a man could come back from such a sin and seek the grace of God, as David after his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah the Hittite (2 Samuel 11:0). But it was at great cost (see Psalms 51:0 and David’s subsequent history).

Verses 37-41

iv) Tassels on The Fringes of Their Clothing (Numbers 15:37-41 ).

The requirement was now made that the children of Israel wear special tassels on their clothing. This was stated to be that they might look on them ‘and remember all the commandments of Yahweh and do them’. In other words they were to be an indication that the wearer was one of the covenant people.

This would act as a witness to outsiders, and to each other, that the wearer was one of Yahweh’s people, and would enable every Israelite to recognise a brother when abroad or on the battlefield. In the heat of battle it was important that friend be discernible from foe. It would say, ‘here is one of Yahweh’s holy ones’.

Numbers 15:37

‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying,’

A further confirmation that we have here Yahweh’s words given to Moses.

Numbers 15:38

Speak to the children of Israel, and bid them that they make for themselves tassels on the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put on the tassel of each border a cord of blue,”

The children of Israel were to place tassels on their outer garment (compare Deuteronomy 22:12), and these tassels were to contain within them a cord of blue. The cord of blue would be a reminder of the Ark of the covenant of Yahweh which went before them covered with a blue cloth (Numbers 4:6), visible for all to see. Such a cloth was also to cover all the furniture of the Holy Place when in transit, although in their cases not visible (Numbers 4:7; Numbers 4:9; Numbers 4:11). Thus blue was an indication of what was sacred to Yahweh, what was heavenly, and they would see it as connecting them with the Ark (when the Ark was with them) as they went in to battle. It would also in their daily lives remind them of the Ark and the covenant that it contained.

The blue dye necessary for this was both rare and costly. It came from the molluscs purpura and murex found on the coast of Phoenicia, and was testified to at Ugarit.

Tassels were a regular feature on ancient garments. The rock engravings at Timna dating to the 13th century BC depict tribesmen wearing tassels, and tasselled garments are witnessed to both in Egypt and Mesopotamia. It was the cord of blue that was to distinguish the Israelite.

Numbers 15:39

And it shall be to you for a tassel, that you may look on it, and remember all the commandments of Yahweh, and do them, and that you follow not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you used to play the harlot,”

And the tassel would be there as a constant reminder of the covenant. They would look on it and remember all the commandments of Yahweh, and do them. Thus would they not walk after their own hearts and eyes which led them into sin and caused them to be unfaithful to God. To ‘play the harlot’ was to participate in idolatry and what was associated with it.

Numbers 15:40

That you may remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God.”

Note the repetition ‘remember and do all My commandments’ in order to seal and emphasise the commitment. They were to follow Yahweh and not their own hearts. Thus would they be holy to their God, distinguished by the purity and obedience of their lives.

Numbers 15:41

I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God. I am Yahweh your God.”

For, as their fathers had not done, they were to remember Who Yahweh is. He is Yahweh their God, Who delivered them from Egypt that He might be their God. He is Yahweh their God. Again we have the repetition for emphasis, paralleling the repetition of ‘remember and do all my commandments’. That indeed is why they were to remember and do, because He was Yahweh their God and Deliverer. And they were to remember that to them He had to be all in all. He would allow no other.

The need for Israel to be dedicated to God and made pure before Him having been dealt with (see also Numbers 5-7 and Numbers 28-30), the question might now arise as to who could minister on their behalf. The new situation may well have placed doubts in people’s minds.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 15". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/numbers-15.html. 2013.
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