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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 15

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-41


Numbers 15:1-41

THE enactments of this chapter regarding meal offerings and drink offerings, the heave offerings of the first dough, and the atonement for unwitting errors belong to the cultus of Canaan. Nothing generic distinguishes the first and third of these statutes from some that were presumably to be observed in the desert; but the note is explicit, "When ye be come into the land of your habitations which I give unto you," "When ye be come into the land whither I bring you." The whole chapter, with its instance of presumptuous sin introduced by the clause, "And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness," marking a return to that time, and its commandment regarding the fringes or tassels of blue to be attached to the dress as remembrances of obligations, may appear at first sight without any reference either to what has preceded or what follows. The compilers, however, have a definite purpose in view. The presumption of Korah and his company, and of Dathan and Abiram, is in contrast to the unwitting faults for which atonement is provided, and it comes under the category of what is "done with a high hand"-a form of blasphemy which is to be punished with death. The case of the Sabbath-breaker is an instance of this unpardonable sin, and sends its light on to the incidents that follow. Even the memorial fringes or tassels, and the prophetic sentences that accompany the command to wear them, seem to be forewarnings of the doom of sacrilegious men.


The statute regarding offerings "to make a sweet savour unto Jehovah" is specially occupied with prescribing the proportion of flour and oil and wine to be presented along with the animal brought for a burnt offering or sacrifice. Any one separating himself in terms of a vow, or desiring to express gratitude for some Divine favour, or again on the occasion of a sacred festival when he had special cause of rejoicing before God, might bring a lamb, a ram, or an ox as his oblation; and the meal and drink offerings were to vary with the value of the animal brought for sacrifice. The law does not demand the same offering of every person under similar circumstances. According to Mhi means or his gratitude he may give. But deciding first as to his burnt or slain offering, he must add to it, for a lamb, the tenth of an ephah of fine flour mixed with a quarter of a hin of oil, and also a quarter of a hin of wine. For a bullock, the quantities were to be three-tenths of an ephah of fine flour, with half a hin of oil, and, as a drink offering, half a hin of wine.

The provision is a singular one, based on some sense of what was becoming which we cannot pretend to revive. But it points to a rule which the Apostle Paul may have recognised in this and other Jewish statutes as belonging to universal morality: "Take thought for things honourable in the sight of all men." To make a show of generosity by giving a bullock, while the flour and oil and wine were withheld, was not seemly. Neither is it seemly for a Christian to be lavish in his gifts to the Church, but withhold the meal offering and drink offering he owes to the poor. Throughout the whole range of use and expenditure, personal and of the family, a proportion is to be found which it is one of the Christian arts to determine, one of the Christian duties to observe. And nothing is right unless all is right. The penny saved here takes away the sweet savour of the pound given there. No man is in this to be a law to himself. Public justice and Divine are to be satisfied.

The presence or absence of oil in an oblation marked its character. The sin offering and the jealousy offering were without oil. The "oil of joy" {Isaiah 61:3} accompanied festal and peace offerings. All ordinances prescribing the oblation of wine and oil necessarily belonged to the cultus of Canaan, for in the wilderness neither of these elements of the sacrifice could be always had. The idea underlying the peace offerings, with their accompanying meal and drink offerings, was unquestionably that of feasting with Jehovah, enjoying His bounty at His table. Acknowledgment was made that the cattle on the hills were His, that it was He who gave the harvest, the vintage, and the fruit of the olive-grove. Confession of man’s indebtedness to Jehovah as Lord of nature was interwoven with the whole sacrificial system.

In connection with this ordinance of meal and drink offerings, and that of atonement for unintentional failures in duty (Numbers 15:22 ff.), it is very carefully enacted that the law shall be the same for the "homeborn" and the "stranger." "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 stranger be before the Lord." The design is to secure religious unity, and by means of it gradually to incorporate with israel all dwellers in the land. While certain ordinances were intended to make Israel a holy nation separated and consecrated to Jehovah, this admission of strangers to the privileges of the covenant has another design. In the Book of Deuteronomy {; Deuteronomy 7:2} a statute occurs that entirely excludes from citizenship and incorporation all Canaanites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, Hivites, Girgashites, and Perizzites. There was to be no intermarriage with them, no toleration of them, lest they led Israel away into idolatry. The statute is enforced by the words, "For thou art a holy people unto the Lord thy God: the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto Himself, above all peoples that are upon the face of the earth." With this emphatic assertion of the severance of the Hebrews from other races the strain of Numbers, as well as Exodus and Leviticus, generally agrees. When we endeavour to harmonise with it the admission of strangers to the right and joy of sacrificial festivals, we at once meet the difficulty that no other races were, fitter to be received into religious confraternity than those of Canaan. Neither Babylonians, Syrians, Phoenicians, nor Philistines were free from the taint of idolatry; and however degrading the rites of the Canaanites were, some of the other nations followed practices quite as revolting.

We know that for a long period of Israel’s history strangers were, according to the statute presently under consideration, admitted to the fellowship of religion, as well as to high office in the state. "We have only to study the Book of Joshua to discover that the Israelites, like the Saxons in Britain, destroyed the cities and not the population of the country, and that the number of cities actually overthrown was not very large. We have only to turn to the list of the ‘mighty men’ of David to learn how many of them were foreigners, Hittites, Ammonites, Zobahites, and even Philistines of Gath. {2 Samuel 15:18; 2 Samuel 16:10}. Nor must it be forgotten that David himself was partly a Moabite by descent." In accordance with this large tolerance we might be disposed to include among the "strangers" admitted to privilege men belonging to races that inhabited Canaan before the conquest. Even Deuteronomy seems in one passage to exclude none but Ammonites and Moabites; and the covenant law of Exodus 23:1-33, commands generous treatment of the stranger. In contrast to the "homeborn," strangers may appear to mean those only who had come from other countries. and chosen to identify themselves with the faith and fortunes of Israel; still this passage attempts no such definition, and on the whole we must allow that the Mosaic law in regulating the political and social position of resident non-Israelites showed "a spirit of great liberality." They had, of course, to conform to many laws-those, for instance, of marriage, and those which forbade the eating of blood and the flesh of animals not properly slaughtered. If uncircumcised, they could not keep the Passover; but being circumcised, they had equal rights with the Hebrews. The purpose evidently was to make an open way to the benefits of Israel’s government and religion.

The heave offering of the first dough is placed (Numbers 15:20) side by side with the heave offering of the threshing-floor of the first sheaves. In Leviticus {; Leviticus 23:17} a harvest oblation is ordered-two wave-loaves of fine flour baken with leaven. Here the heave offering of a cake made from the first dough is not accompanied with sacrifices of animals, but is of a simple kind, mainly a tribute to the priests. The Deuteronomic statute regarding firstfruits, which were to be put in a basket and set down before the altar, prescribed a formula of dedication beginning, "An Aramean ready to perish was my father, and he went down into Egypt": and the offering of these firstfruits was to be an occasion of joy-"Thou shalt rejoice in all the good which the Lord thy God hath given unto thee and unto thine house, thou and the Levite, and the stranger that is in the midst of thee." There can be no question that the most developed statute regarding these harvest offerings is that given in Leviticus, where the exact time for the presentation of the loaves is fixed, the fiftieth day after the Sabbath, from the day when the sheaf was brought. The feast accompanying the offering of the loaves came to be known as that of Pentecost.

Passing now to the law of atonement for unintentional omissions of duty, we notice that the introductory sentences (Numbers 15:22-23) have a peculiar retrospective cast. They seem to point back to the time when the Lord gave commandment by the hand of Moses. It would appear that in course of years discovery was made that portions of the law were neglected, and the provisions of this statute were to relieve the nation and individuals of accumulating defilement. "When ye shall err, and not observe all these commandments which the Lord hath spoken unto Moses, even all that the Lord hath commanded you by the hand of Moses, from the day that the Lord gave commandment, and onward throughout your generations; then it shall be, if it be done unwittingly, without the knowledge of the congregation"-so runs the preamble. A series of statutes in Leviticus 4:1-35 contemplates offences of a like kind, when something has been done which the Lord commanded not to be done. The enactment of Numbers appears to point to a "complete falling away of the congregation from the whole of the law," an unconscious apostasy. Maimonides understands the provision as relating to guilt incurred by the people in adopting customs and usages of the heathen that seemed to be reconcilable with the law of Jehovah, though they really led to contempt and neglect of His commandments.

For the nation as a whole, under these circumstances, atonement was to be made by the burnt offering of a young bullock with its meal offering and drink offering, and the sin offering of a he-goat. In this purgation all strangers resident with Israel are specially included. When any person discovered that he had neglected a precept, he was to offer a she-goat of the first year for a sin offering. The Israelite and the stranger alike had in this way access to the sanctuary. But in contrast to unintentional omission of duty was set deliberate neglect of it. For this there was no atonement. Whether the high-handed transgressor was homeborn or a stranger, he was to be utterly cut off as a blasphemer; his iniquity rested upon him. The distinction is morally sound; and the punishment of the rebel against authority-apparently nothing less than death, or perhaps, if he has fled the land, out-lawry-is such as the theocratic idea obviously required. It was Jehovah Himself who was defied. A man who, as it were, shook his fist in rebellion against God had no right to live in His world, under the protection of His beneficent laws.

The distinction between unwitting neglect and open rejection runs through the whole range of duty, natural, Hebrew, Christian. What a man knows to be right he has before him as a Divine law of moral conduct. By the highest obligations, under which he lies to the Lord of conscience, to his fellowmen, and to himself, he is bound to obey. Judaism added the authority of revelation-the Mosaic law, the prophetic word. Christianity still further adds the authority of the word spoken by the Son of God, and the obligation imposed by His death as the manifestation of eternal love. In proportion as the Divine will is made clear, and the law enforced by revelation and grace, the sin of rejection becomes greater and more blasphemous. But, on the other hand, the unwitting transgressor, be he heathen or imperfectly instructed Christian, has under the new covenant, in which mercy and justice go hand in hand, no less consideration than the Hebrew who unintentionally erred. There is no law that cuts him off from his people. Wide as this principle may reach, it must be that according to which men are judged. Many, knowing the invisible things of God "through the things that are made," are without excuse. They "hold down the truth in unrighteousness"; they are high-handed transgressors. But others who have no knowledge of the Divine law, and break it unwittingly, have their atonement: God provides it. Nor are we to impeach Divine Providence by judging before the time.

It may be asked, Why, since defiant rejection of Christian law is more blasphemous than high-handed breach of the old Hebrew law, the providence of God does not punish it? If any one with Christ and His cross in view is guilty of injustice, or of hatred which is murder, does he not prove himself unworthy to live in God’s world? And why, then, does he not suffer at once the doom of his rebellion? The theory of some stern moralists has been that human government should administer the justice of Heaven and cut off the unbeliever. In many a notable case this has been done, and has caused a righteous horror which continues to be felt. But although men cannot safely undertake the punishment of such offenders, why does not God? Christ boldly stated that here and now this is not the method of the Divine government, but that men enjoy the Father’s mercy even when they are unjust, unthankful, and evil. Yet He spoke of judgment universal-judgment and retribution that shall not miss a single sinner, a single secret sin. And His view of the theocracy clearly is that meanwhile God by mercy to the defiant desires to train men in mercy, by forbearance towards the unthankful and evil commends to us like patience and endurance. Transgressors are to have their full opportunity of repentance, to which the very goodness of God calls them. But justice which delays is not unobservant. Though He who reigns moves slowly to His end, He will not fail to reach it. "He hath appointed a day in the which He will judge the world in righteousness." As for human law, its sphere is fixed. Society must protect itself against crime, and is to do so in the name of God, in conformity with the eternal principles of righteousness. The Hebrew temper may seem to have carried this principle into a range that was perilous to enter, as in the instance immediately to be considered; yet the protection of society was even then the immediate motive, not vain jealousy for the honour of God. For ourselves, we have a duty which must be done without assumption or hypocrisy.

The various subjects of thought suggested here should be followed out. For us, they are complicated on the social as well as the religious side by certain theories that are in vogue. The duty of civil government, for example, is on one side extended beyond its proper range by the attempt to give it authority in the domain of religious truth; on the other hand it is unduly restricted by toleration of what is against the well-being of society. The Christian moralist has much to ponder in relation to popular opinions and the trend of modern legislation.


If the actual sequence of events is followed in the narrative of Numbers, it must have been after the condemnation of the adult Israelites that judgment of the man who was found infringing the Sabbath law had to be executed; and some who were themselves under reprobation took part in convicting and punishing this offender. There is a difficulty here which on high moral grounds it is impossible to explain away. Disaffection and revolt had brought on the mass of the people the sentence of destruction; and this had only been exchanged on Moses’ intercession for the forty years of wandering. Should not sins that were visited with this penalty have excluded all who were guilty of them from any judicial act? But the same objection would, if admitted, prevent all of us from taking part in the execution of law. Neither the judge nor the jury, neither those who legislate nor those who administer law, are free from moral fault. The whole system dealing with crime has this defect; and Israel in the wilderness was as much entitled as modern society to take in hand the correction of offenders, the maintenance of public well-being.

The law which had been broken was one specially connected with duty to God. Sabbath-keeping might indeed seem to belong to worship rather than to social morality. The seventh day was the Sabbath of Jehovah. It was to be kept holy to Him, made a delight for His sake. The statute regarding it belonged to the first table of the Decalogue. Still, the commandment had a social as well as a religious side. In good will to men Jehovah required the day to be kept holy to Him. Had one and another like this offender been allowed to set aside the fourth commandment, the interests of the whole congregation would soon have suffered. It was for the good of the race, physically as well as intellectually and spiritually, the Sabbath was to be kept. Those who guarded the sanctity of the Sabbath were guarding not the honour of God alone, though they may have thought that the chief merit of their watchfulness, but the interests of the people, a precious heritage of the nation.

It is not necessary to maintain that judgment was given by Moses solely on the ground that the man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath was an offender against the public well-being. The thought of Jehovah’s "jealousy" was constantly kept before the mind of Israel, for by that idea, better than any other, beneficent legislation was supported in a rude age; and judgment no doubt rested mainly on this. Yet the interference of the people and their share in the execution of punishment are to be justified by the undoubted fact that Israel could not afford to let the Sabbath be lost. Even those who were to a great extent earthly could perceive this. And if the punishment seems disproportionate, we must remember that it was the presumptuous temper of the man rather than his actual fault that was judged criminal. St. James said, no doubt from this point of view, "Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is become guilty of all." The criminal act was that of breaking down, with daring hand, the safeguard of social and religious prosperity.

And there is a sense in which without Pharisaism those who are concerned for the public well-being may still insist on the strict enforcement of the laws that guard the day of rest. Though all days are alike sacred to spiritually minded persons, yet bodily health and mental soundness are bound-up more than men in general know with the Sabbatic interval between labour and labour. The Puritanism often scoffed at is far more philanthropic than the humanitarianism, so-called, which derides it. And when any one enforces the duty of Sabbath-keeping by insisting on God’s claim to the seventh day, his belief is no superstition. Convict him first of advocating what is against the good of men, irrational, absurd, before venturing to call him superstitious. If what is advanced as a claim of God can be proved to be really for the good of men, it is a virtue to insist that for God’s sake as well as the sake of men it should be rendered. There were persons in our Lord’s time who made Sabbath-keeping a superstition. Against them He testifieth. But it is in His name. who was the great Friend of men the Sabbath law is now insisted on; and the day of rest has all the higher sanction that it commemorates His resurrection from the dead, His promise of that new life which relief from labour enables us to pursue.

The institution of the Sabbath and the scrupulous observance of it were, for Israel, and are still for all believers in Divine religion, most important means of maintaining unity in the faith. Now that many causes interfere with the simultaneous exhibition of regard for other symbols of Christian belief, the day of rest and worship gives a universal opportunity which it would be fatal to neglect. It has the advantage of beginning to claim men on the ground where religion first appeals to them, that of God’s care for their temporal well-being. Those with whom religious feeling is quite elementary must see that a boon of incalculable value is offered in this recurring refreshment to the wearied body and strained mind. And with progress in religious culture the benefit of the day of rest is found to advance. The opportunities of worship, of religious meditation and service, which it brings, will be esteemed as the value of Christian fellowship, the importance of Christian knowledge, and the duty of Christian endeavour are successively understood. On all these grounds the Sabbath, or Lord’s Day, is for modern religion, as for that of the old covenant, a great declaration, a means of unity and development which the spiritual will earnestly uphold. Let it fail, and distinction between religious and nonreligious will be without a sign. No doubt the reality is more by far than the symbol. Yet fellowship, for which in many cases the Sabbath alone gives opportunity, is far more than a symbol: and unity requires an outward manifestation. Nothing could be more perilous to the religious life of our people than the tendency, shown by many who profess Christianity and sanctioned by some of its teachers, to make the Sabbath a day of self-pleasing, of mere individualism, and incoherent secularity.


The unique sumptuary law with which the chapter closes may be regarded as a sequence of the Sabbath-breaker’s conviction. That Israelites might never be without a reminder of their duty, and of the Divine laws they were scrupulously to observe, these tassels with a band of blue were to be constantly worn. It appears to us singular that men should be expected to pay heed to such mementoes as these. We are apt to say, If the laws of God were not in their hearts, the zizith would scarcely make them more attentive; and if they had the laws in their hearts, they would need no memorials of obligation. But the ornament was something more than a reminder of duty. It was a badge of honour, and became more so as the Israelites understood their high position among the peoples. The zizith would be like an order, a mark of rank; or like the uniform of his regiment, which to the good soldier recalls its history. The Hebrew would have to live up to his duty as signified by these attachments of his dress.

And Israelites were to be distinguished by the zizith from those who were of other races, not under law to Jehovah. Every man who wore this badge would be able to count on the sympathy of every other Israelite. The symbol became a means of rousing the esprit of the nation, and binding it together in a zealous fraternity. The nature of the badge appears to us peculiar; but the value of it cannot be denied. The modern peoples, far as they have travelled from the old ways of the Hebrews, retain the use of symbolic dress, the liking for ornaments, by which a man’s life may be known.

The name zizith is derived from a word meaning blossom. The tassel was formed of twisted threads bound by a cord or ribbon of blue to the garment. It was the blossom of the robe, so to speak, hanging by a blue stem. The ornament is again mentioned in Deuteronomy 22:12, where it has another name, gedilim, enlargements. With extraordinary pride the Jews of our own time still wear the talith, which is a fantastical development of the zizith of Numbers. "The rabbins observe that each string consisted of eight threads, which, with the number of knots and the numerical value of the letters in the word, make 613, which, according to them, is the exact number of the precepts in the law." The Pharisees in Christ’s time enlarged their phylacteries, displaying superfluously the proofs of their Hebrew orthodoxy and zeal. It is the danger of all symbols. In the youth of a people they have meaning; they express fact, they give honour. The Israelite, wearing his, felt himself reminded, put on his honour, not to go about "according to his own heart and his own eyes by which he used to go a-whoring." But afterwards the zeal became that of pride, the symbol a mere amulet or a token of self-sufficiency. The Jew of today is partly kept separate by his talith, and because he wears it, feels himself in touch with the fathers and heroes and prophets of his people. But he also feels, what is not always good, his remoteness from heathen and Christian "dogs."

And Christian symbols, the few sanctioned by Scripture, the others that have crept into use in the course of history, bring with their use a similar danger. In many cases they are signs of privilege rather than memorials of duty. They minister to pride, rather than stimulate zeal in the service of God and men. The crucifix itself, with consummate superstition, is worn and kissed as a talisman.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Numbers 15". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/numbers-15.html.
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