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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 5

The Pulpit CommentariesThe Pulpit Commentaries

Verses 1-7



Numbers 5:2

Every leper. The law of the leper had been given in great detail in Leviticus 13:1-59 and Leviticus 14:1-57, and it had been already ordered that he should be put out of the camp (Le Leviticus 13:46, and cf. Leviticus 14:3). Every one that hath an issue. These defilements are treated of in Leviticus 15:1-33; where, however, it is not expressly ordered that those so polluted should be put out of the camp. Whosoever is defiled by the dead. The fact of being thus defiled is recognized in Le Leviticus 11:24; Leviticus 21:1, but the formal regulations concerning it are not given until Numbers 19:21. Probably the popular opinion and practice was sufficiently definite to explain the present command.

Numbers 5:3

That they defile not their camps, in the midst whereof I dwell. Cleanliness, decency, and the anxious removal even of unwitting pollutions were things due to God himself, and part of the awful reverence to be paid to his presence in the midst of Israel. It is of course easy to depreciate the value of such outward cleanness, as compared with inward; but when we consider the frightful prevalence of filthiness in Christian countries

(1) of person and dress,

(2) of talk,

(3) of habit in respect of things not so much sinful as uncleanly,

we may indeed acknowledge the heavenly wisdom of these regulations, and the incalculable value of the tone of mind engendered by them. With the Jews "cleanliness" was not "next to godliness,'' it was part of godliness.

Numbers 5:4

So did the children of Israel. It is difficult to form any estimate of the numbers thus separated; if we may judge at all from the prevalence of such defilements (especially those under the second head) now, it must have seriously aggravated both the labour and the difficulty of the march. Here was a trial of their faith.


Numbers 5:1-4


In this section we have, spiritually, the necessary sentence of banishment upon those defiled with sin, and the duty of separating them. Consider, therefore—

I. THAT NO LEPER MIGHT STAY IN THE CAMP OF ISRAEL; HE MUST BE "WITHOUT." Even so it is the necessary fate of the sinner, who is the true leper,—a fate which God himself, as we may reverently believe, cannot alter,—that he must be for ever separated from the company of all pure and holy beings (Hebrews 12:14; Revelation 21:27; Revelation 22:15). Until he is healed he may be with, but not of, the people of God; numbered with them indeed, and following the earthly fortunes of the Church, as the lepers in the wilderness; but really separated from them, and this the more profoundly because of the outward proximity. If a sinner could go to heaven as a sinner, even there he would be a banished man, beholding the joy of the saints from outside with a sense of difference, of farness, which would itself be hell.

II. THAT NO ONE UNCLEAN THROUGH ANY ISSUE MIGHT STAY IN THE CAMP OF ISRAEL. And this was more severe, because it was a much more common and much less dreadful case than leprosy, being in most cases neither very apparent nor very permanent; yet this also entailed banishment while it lasted. Even so all habits of sin, however little shocking to the natural mind, exclude the sinner until he be healed from the true fellowship of the saints. They are indeed "natural" enough to the fallen soul, as these issues are natural to our present body of humiliation, but they are not therefore harmless. One sinful habit, however common amongst men, would disqualify and unfit the soul for the companionship of heaven, and so would entail an inward and real exile even there. A habit of lying is one of the commonest outcomes of human life as it is; but "whatsoever … maketh a lie" must be "without."

III. THAT NO ONE EVEN WHO HAD TOUCHED A DEAD BODY MIGHT STAY IN THE CAMP OF ISRAEL. The defilement of death passed over with the taint of it upon all that came in contact with the dead. Even so that contact, to which we are daily and hourly exposed, with those dead in trespasses and sins is enough to unfit us for fellowship with pure and holy beings. If only the taint, the subtle contagion, the imperceptible communication of spiritual death pass upon us, as it almost must in daily intercourse with the world, it separates pro tanto from the communion of saints. It must be purged by the daily prayer of repentance and supply of grace ere we can be at home and at one with the really holy. And note that these three forms of uncleanness—

(1) leprosy, which was rare and dreadful;

(2) issues, which are common and little noticed:

(3) the taint of death, which was imperceptible save to God

—represent in a descending scale the three forms of sin which separate from God and his saints, viz.

(1) open and notorious wickedness;

(2) sinful habits such as spring out of ordinary life, and are little regarded;

(3) the subtle taint of spiritual death caught by careless contact with the evil world.

IV. THAT IT WAS THE DUTY OF ISRAEL—a duty to be discharged at cost of much inconvenience; a duty in which all must help, not sparing their own—TO PUT AWAY ALL WHO WERE KNOWN TO BE POLLUTED FROM THE CAMPS. Even so it is the duty of the Churches of Christ to separate open sinners from their communion, not only lest others be defiled, but lest God be offended (Matthew 18:17; 1 Corinthians 5:2, 1Co 5:11, 1 Corinthians 5:13; 2 Thessalonians 3:6). And note that many unclean may have remained in the camp, whose uncleanness was not suspected, or could not be proved; but if so, they alone were responsible. Even so there be very many evil men in the Church who cannot now be separated; but if the principle be zealously vindicated, the Church shall not suffer (Matthew 13:47, Matthew 13:49; 1 Corinthians 11:19; 2 Timothy 2:20).


Numbers 5:1-4


The host has now been marshaled. The several tribes have taken the places allotted to them in relation to the tabernacle and to one another. They are about to set forth on the march from the wilderness of Sinai. Before the signal is given, certain final instructions for the regulation of the camp have yet to be delivered, and this about the removal of unclean persons is one of them. The general intention of it is intimated in the terms employed. The host is to be so ordered, both in the camp and on the march, as to make it a living picture of the Church, and the Church's relation to God. It is to be made manifest that he dwells and walks among the covenant people (Le Numbers 26:11, Numbers 26:12), that he is of pure eyes, and cannot suffer evil to dwell with him. Accordingly, there must in no wise abide in the camp any man or woman that is unclean. Persons afflicted with uncleanness must be removed, and live outside of the sacred precinct. Such is the law here laid down.

I. IN ATTRIBUTING TO THIS LAW A RELIGIOUS INTENTION, I DO NOT FORGET THAT A LOWER AND MORE PROSAIC INTERPRETATION HAS SOMETIMES BEEN PUT ON IT. There are commentators who remind one of the man with the muck-rake in the "Pilgrim's Progress." They have no eye except for what is earthly. To them the removal of the unclean is simply a sanitary measure. I freely admit that there was a sanitary intention. The sequestering of lepers, the early and "extramural" burial of the dead—these are valuable sanitary provisions, and it is plain that this law would lead to them. But I need not wait to prove that the law looks higher, and that its paramount intention is moral and spiritual.

II. Passing on, therefore, to the RELIGIOUS INTENTION Of this law, observe who exactly are excluded by it from the camp. They are of three sorts, viz; lepers, persons affected with issues of various kinds, and persons who had come in contact with the dead. This does not by any means exhaust the catalogue of defilements noted in the Levitical law. But these were the gravest. Only these three disabled from residence in the camp. My reason for calling attention to this point you will understand when I mention that these three uncleannesses, so prominent in the law of Moses, received the same kind of prominence in the gracious ministry of Christ. Read the story of the leper (Mark 1:41); of the woman with the issue of blood (Mark 5:27-30); of the raising of Jairus' daughter and the widow's son at Nain (Mark 5:41 and Luke 7:14). In no one of these passages is the Levitical law named. Much the greater number of those who read or hear them fail to perceive that in Christ's mode of performing the miracles there was any reference to what the law had said about the defiling quality of the evils on which his gracious power was put forth. That there truly was a reference surely needs no proof. No Jew ever forgot what the penalty would be if he suffered himself to be in contact with a dead body, with a leper, with a person having an issue of blood. Certainly our Lord did not forget. Nor would it be doing justice to the truth to say that our Lord touched as he did, notwithstanding the defilement thereby contracted, and its troublesome consequences. He, of set purpose, sought occasion to put himself in contact with every one of the three causes of defilement noted in the law. Keeping this in mind, let us ask the meaning of the law.

1. The general intention. It was to be a memorial of the truth that our nature is deeply infected with sin, and that sin disables all in whom it is found for enjoying the fellowship of God here and hereafter. In this Levitical statute, I admit, the lesson is not taught explicitly. There was nothing morally wrong in any one of the three sources of defilement named. The teaching is by symbol—a kind of object lesson—and not the less impressive on that account.

2. The meaning of the several symbols.

(1) Defilement by the dead. Why is this? Because death is the wages of sin (Genesis 2:17; Genesis 3:19). Compare the representation of death which pervades Psalms 90:1-17—"the prayer of Moses."

(2) Defilement by leprosy. A touching symbol. It admonishes us that sin, besides being blameworthy and deserving of death, is a vile thing, to be loathed and recoiled from, as men loathe and recoil from a leper; contagious also, and apt to spread.

(3) Of the third symbol I need say only this, that it reminds us that sin is an hereditary evil (Psalms 51:5).

3. The relation of this law to Christ and his work. That it has a relation has been already pointed out. The relation may be conceived of thus :—The law is the dark ground on which the redemptive work of Christ unfolds the brightness of its grace. Christ did not keep aloof from the evils which afflict our fallen nature, and which perpetually remind us how deep our fall has been. He took occasion to put himself in contact with them. He touched the leprous man. Not that leprosy was sweet to him; it was to him as loathsome as to any man in Palestine that day. Nevertheless, he touched the leprous man, and the leprosy fled before the power of that touch. Leprosy, wasting issues, death—these are the memorials and tokens of the sin that is the fatal heritage of our fallen race; and one who would know our need of redemption cannot do better than meditate on them as they are set forth in the Levitical law. Leprosy, wasting issues, death—these evils our blessed Lord went up to in his ministry; he touched them, and their flight the instant that they felt his touch gave, and continues still to give, assurance to men that he is indeed the Saviour. He can forgive sin; he can make us clean; he is the resurrection and the life.—B.


Numbers 5:1-4


This law, like many others, in part a sanitary law; but also educational in spiritual truth, and typical of eternal realities. Two truths taught:—

I. THE HOLINESS OF GOD. This lesson, so hard to the Israelites, was impressed on them in many ways, e.g; sacred men ministering in sacred places, on sacred days, etc. This holy God dwelt in the midst of their tents, and walked among them (Le Numbers 26:11, Numbers 26:12). The God of life and purity was utterly alien from death and impurity. Defilement, whether willful or unavoidable, could not be tolerated in his presence. If the polluted are retained, God withdraws. Sin is "the abominable thing" which God hates. He is "of purer eyes than to behold evil" (Jeremiah 44:4; Habakkuk 1:13).

II. THE EXCOMMUNICATING POWER OF SIN. The consequences to the excluded Hebrews, though limited, were by no means light. They had to suffer loss of privileges, ceremonial and spiritual, and a sense of humiliation from the notoriety of their position. For the time they were out of communion with God and his people. Thus sin has an isolating power. Apart from an act of ecclesiastical excommunication or Divine judgment, its tendency is to separate us from the people of God through want of sympathy. We cease to enjoy their privileges even if not debarred from them. We lose self-respect when sin is exposed, if not before. We are out of communion with God, into whose presence we cannot truly come with sin indulged in our hearts (Psalms 66:18; Ezekiel 14:3). God's salvation is from sin, not in sin. No wonder, therefore, that the impure are sentenced—

(1) to excommunication from the Church on earth (1 Corinthians 5:9-13, etc.),

(2) to exclusion from the Church in heaven. (Revelation 21:27).—P.


Numbers 5:1-4


The book up to this point is occupied with the counting and discipline of the people, both those for war and those for tabernacle service. Now the cleansing of the camp is to be attended to.

I. THE CLASSES WHO WERE DECLARED UNCLEAN. Certainly we must not be too curious in our inquiries here, or we may soon pass the verge of what is edifying. But there are some points of note with regard to all three classes. The leper. Why should he be declared unclean? Perhaps as suffering from a more manifest disease than others, maybe a peculiarly offensive one, and one of the most difficult to cure. These are conjectures which give a little light, but the great reason for ceremonial uncleanness in the case of human beings, as in the case of lower animals, is to be found in Jehovah's positive injunction. Leprosy was thus to be one of the great types in the body of the defiling effect of sin upon the soul. It is clear that in the course of ages the idea got fixed in the Israelite mind that the cure of leprosy was to be considered as a cleansing. Jesus commanded his apostles to heal the sick, cleanse the lepers. The leper was not a common victim, but singled out to impress the fact that the ultimate cause which produces disease is a strange and polluting thing; no necessary element in human nature, though now it be actually present in us all. The person with an issue. Thus uncleanness is connected with birth as well as with death. Whenever a child is born, a being is brought into the world, which certainly will add something to the evil in it, though possibly it may add much to the good. The saintliest of believers has had in hint the possibilities of the worst of unbelievers. Human nature is truly the creation of God, fearfully and wonderfully made; but there is also the fact of birth from sinful human parents to be remembered. This is a great mystery, to be delicately handled; but the uncleanness here indicated may be taken as intended to remind parents how one generation transmits not only nature, but sinful nature, to another. The person defiled by the dead. There is great. significance in being made unclean by the dead. Of all things in the world that manifest the effects of sin, this is the greatest—death. By sin came death. All lesser results lead up to this. A dead body, in one sense as sacred a thing as there is in the world, is yet also one of the most unclean. As long as there is life there is something to protest against the reign of sin, and resist it; but life being gone, sin riots and revels in the corruption of what was once fair and strong. The coffin and the gravestone hide, but they only hide. It was one of our Lord's most terrible words to the Pharisees to compare them to whited sepulchers.

II. THE LINE OF SEPARATION. There are large details in Leviticus respecting all these instances of uncleanness (chapters 12-15). The line of separation was clearly marked, sternly enforced. To go out of the camp meant much personal inconvenience, perhaps pain—suffering added on to existing suffering. Imagine the mother tending her sick child, waiting its expiring breath, closing its eyes, composing its body, then compelled to go without the camp. This typical ceremonial uncleanness indicates the sharp separation, between good and bad mere The word of God accords in all its references to this. There are two classes, and only two—the clean and the unclean, the sheep and the goats, the wheat and tares, the children of God and the children of wrath. It also indicates the extent to which discipline can be carried in the Church of Christ on earth. There are some offences so plain that the guilty may at once be cut off from outward communion. But there may be others quite as unworthy who yet do and must escape, because their life makes no crying scandal. Many a professed and long-continued adherent to the true Church is, nevertheless, as worldly, hard, and selfish as any of the ungodly. God reckons all such outside the camp. He alone has the knowledge and authority to reckon. Learn then the danger of all spiritual uncleanness. That so much was declared typically unclean, shows that spiritual uncleanness is a very great danger. The boundary between the Church and the world cannot be too strictly kept. Since we are all advancing to death, it is proof of the power of sin in our nature. We are all unclean with the worst of uncleanness. It only waits for us to feel all the evil, and the way is clear to the remedy (1 John 1:7-10).—Y.

Verses 8-10



Numbers 5:6

Shall commit any sin that men commit. Literally, "[one] of all the transgressions of men," i.e; the wrongs current amongst men. To do a trespass against the Lord. This qualifies the former expression, and restricts its reference to the sins mentioned in Le Numbers 6:2, Numbers 6:8, Numbers 6:5, viz; wrongs done to the property of another. Such wrongs, perhaps because they were considered legitimate as long as they were not found out, were taken up by the Lord himself as involving a trespass against his own righteousness.

Numbers 5:8

If the man have no kinsman. No goel, or personal representative. This supposes that the wronged man himself is dead, and it is an addition to the law of restitution as given in Leviticus 6:1-30, an addition clearly necessary to its completeness. The wrong-doer must in no case be the gainer by his own wrong, and if the trespass could not be "recompensed" to man, it must be "recompensed'' to the Lord, who was as it were joint-plaintiff in the cause. To the priest. On the general principle that the priest was the visible representative of the invisible majesty.

Numbers 5:9

Every offering. Hebrew, terumah, heave offering (Exodus 29:28). Septuagint, ἀπαρχὴ. Those offerings, or portions of offerings, which were not consumed on the altar, but "presented" at the altar. Having been offered, they were the property of the Lord, and were given by him to the priests.

Numbers 5:10

Every man's hallowed things. Dedicatory offerings, such as first-fruits, not exactly of the nature of sacrifices. His, i.e; the priest's. Whatsoever any man giveth the priest, it shall be his. A general principle, including and confirming the previous rules; subject, of course, to the other and greater principle, that whatever the Lord claimed for himself by fire must first be consumed. These directions concerning the rights of the priests to offerings are very often repeated in various connections. There was probably a strong tendency amongst the people to cheat the priests of their dues, or to represent their claims as exorbitant. It is in the spirit of covetousness which underlies all such conduct that we are to find the connection between these two verses and the rest of the paragraph.


Numbers 5:5-10


We have here, as part of the moral law of God which changeth not, the duty of making confession of, and satisfaction for, any wrong done to another, and the duty of not withholding what is rightly theirs from the ministers of God. Consider, therefore—

I. THAT EVERY WRONG DONE TO ANOTHER IN RESPECT OF HIS PROPERTY WAS ASSUMED BY THE LORD AS A TRESPASS AGAINST HIMSELF. So now every wrong or fraud, and all cheating or sharp dealing, practiced by one of us against another, is not merely an offence against man,—such as may be excused by the necessity of the times, or the custom of business, or the universal prevalence of such practices,—but is an outrage against the righteousness of God which he will never overlook. To such a man God himself is "the adversary" (Matthew 5:25); and if he be not repaid, then will he himself "repay" that man (Isaiah 59:18; Romans 12:19). He that hath cheated his neighbour of a penny hath gained unto himself an eternal and immeasurable loss, except he repent, confess, restore (Exodus 34:7; Isaiah 61:8).




So now there is no true repentance for, and no real forgiveness of, such wrongs—from the least even to the greatest—unless they are

(1) humbly acknowledged,

(2) liberally made good (Luke 19:8).

Those wrongs (alas, how many!) which are never found out, which are not acknowledged through false shame, and not made good through covetousness, are like bullets lodged in the body, which will not cease to cause misery, disease, and death.

III. THAT IF THE WRONGED MAN WAS DEAD, AND HAD LEFT NO REPRESENTATIVE, THE TRESPASS MUST STILL BE RECOMPENSED TO THE LORD BY BEING PAID TO THE PRIEST. So now it is a certain maxim of Christian morality (as of law) that no man be a gainer by his own wrong. If he cannot repay to the person wronged, directly or indirectly, he is bound to make recompense to God by devoting, it to some pious purpose. If a man has made a fortune by fraud, his repentance is vain unless he make over the whole of it to the good of his neighbours. This will not cleanse his conscience,—only the one Sacrifice can do that,—but without it his conscience cannot be cleansed.

IV. THAT GOD DID CAREFULLY INSIST THAT HIS PRIESTS SHOULD RECEIVE THEIR PORTION, and SHOULD NOT BE OVER-REACHED. Even so is the law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:7-14; Gal 6:6; 1 Timothy 5:17, 1 Timothy 5:18).


Numbers 5:5-10


This precept is a continuation of the one laid down in the preceding verses, and, like it, admonishes the people regarding the purity which ought to prevail in a camp honoured with the presence of the Holy One. Since the Lord dwells in the midst of the camp, there must not abide in it anything that defileth—any leper, any one having an issue, any one who has been in contact with the dead. Nor is it bodily defilement only that entails this disability. The man "that doeth hurt to his neighbour" is unclean in God's sight. Fraud is as defiling as leprosy. Even if it is such as the criminal law cannot reach, God's eye sees it, and is offended with it; and the wrong-doer must regard himself as excluded from the camp till he has made restitution to his wronged neighbour, and brought a sacrifice of atonement to the Lord. I. Keeping in view the scope of the law as I have described it, you will without difficulty master the particulars laid down, especially if you read along with it the law in Le Numbers 6:1-7. It is essential to observe that this injunction is not a part of the criminal code. It is not laid down for the guidance of the judges, but for the guidance of a man's own conscience. The restitution enjoined is similar to that known among ourselves as CONSCIENCE MONEY. Take an example. A man finds a pruning-hook by the highway-side, evidently left there by mistake. He takes it home. "An excellent pruning-hook; the very thing I was in need of. I need not make a noise about the lucky find; I will keep it to myself." A few days after, the loser turns up, and makes inquiries about his hook. But the finder denies all knowledge of it, and it remains in his possession. Among us the criminal law would have something to say to this dishonest finder. The meshes of the Hebrew criminal code seem to have been wide enough to let him go. But the holy law of God speaks to his conscience.

1. He is to confess his fault. Even in matters belonging to the criminal law, the Jews laid great stress on confession. It was a maxim among them, that if a man brought an offering for his offence, but omitted to confess the evil he had done, his offering would not avail for atonement (cf. 1 John 1:9).

2. He is to make restitution to the person wronged. In the instance supposed the pruning-hook must be restored, or its equivalent in money, with one-fifth part added. This, let me observe in passing, shows that the trespass contemplated is not a trespass such as fell within the scope of the criminal law; for the restitution enjoined in the criminal law was much ampler A thief restored double; a sheep-stealer fourfold; a cattle-lifter fivefold (Exodus 22:1-4). Mild penalties certainly, but more severe than the restitution enjoined here.

3. A ram is to be brought to the Lord as a trespass offering for atonement.

4. If the person who was wronged is dead, the restitution is to be made to the next heir,—the kinsman, or goel (Numbers 6:8),—whom failing, it is to be made to the Lord in the person of the priest. In connection with this, the people are admonished that all gifts solemnly dedicated to the priest fall under the same rule as conscience money paid by way of compensation for fraud. Omission to pay them will defile the camp.


1. When a man does wrong to his neighbour he sins against God, and must crave God's pardon for the wrong. There have been religious systems—the old Greek and Roman paganism, for example—which completely disconnected religion from morality. A tendency in the same direction, who that knows himself has not caught a glimpse of in his own heart? Against that fatal divorce the whole word. of God is a protest and warning. Read Psalms 15:2. When a man does wrong to his neighbour he must make compensation to his neighbour. It will not do simply to confess the wrong to God, and beg his pardon. That is only one half of what the case demands. Satisfaction must be made to the person wronged. In many cases the civil magistrate will see to this. In many other cases the wrong-doing is of a kind which his sword cannot reach—fraudulent bankruptcies often elude the law. In all cases alike, God commands the person who has wronged his neighbour to repay him with increase.

3. The wrongdoer who omits to repay as required is admonished that he is an unclean person, whose presence defiles God's sanctuary. In God's sight the camp is defiled by the presence of a man who defrauds as much as by a leper. If you would see how deeply this aspect of the precept before us impressed itself on consciences in Israel read Psalms 15:1-5, a psalm fitted surely to suggest alarm to those amongst us who in business habitually violate the golden rule, and yet claim a place in God's sanctuary.

4. In the complications of modem life it will happen far more frequently than in ancient Israel that satisfaction for fraud cannot be made directly to the parties defrauded. In this case the money is to be devoted to charitable and pious uses. To be sure, ill-gotten wealth is a very undesirable source of income for either Church or charity. I much doubt whether God honours it to do much good. But if the fraudulent person is truly penitent, and has done his best to make compensation to his victims, he may hope to escape the defilement and curse that cleave to dishonest gains by bestowing them where they may possibly do some good.—B.


Numbers 5:5-8


These trespasses are explained and illustrated in Le Numbers 6:1-7. In both passages provision is made for confession, restitution, interest, and atonement—in Leviticus the atonement being spoken of more fully than here. Notice that three parties are provided for in the directions given.

I. THE WRONG-DOER. The wrong-doer has done injury to himself as well as another. In one sense the injury is even greater. What we suffer from others, grievous and irritating as it may be at the time, need not be an abiding ill; but the injury we inflict on others is great spiritual danger to ourselves. Hence the man truly confessing the wrong he had done was proving himself in a better state of mind, no longer the victim of selfishness, and glorying in his shame, but showing an awakened conscience, and a repentance needing not to be repented of. Consider the benefit David got (Psalms 51:1-19). Confession, restitution, and atonement cleanse the bosom of a great deal of "perilous stuff." Restitution, though a loss in possessions, is a gain in peace. Reparation of a wrong done to a fellow-man is to be valued for the injured person's sake; but it is a great deal more that the wrong-doer for his own sake has been brought right with God.

II. THE PERSON WRONGED. He is provided for as far as he can be provided for. To make reparation in all respects is indeed impossible. A wrong-doer, with all his efforts, cannot put things exactly as they were before. Still he must do what he can. Hence the provision to add a fifth over the principal. Doubtless a truly repentant trespasser would not stop even at that to show his sincerity in reparation. Zaccheus restored fourfold. Surely there are some injured persons to whom it would be a greater joy and a greater benefit to see their enemies altogether altered than if they had never been hurt by them at all. One great good, as concerned the person wronged, was that confession and restitution would do much to allay, and perhaps obliterate, the sense of injustice. "It is not what a man outwardly has or wants that constitutes the happiness or misery of him. It is the feeling of injustice that is insupportable to all men. The brutalest black African cannot bear that he should be used unjustly" (Carlyle). Again, injured persons themselves may be injurers. A sense of wrong suffered is not always effectual in hindering the sufferer from wronging others. So the confession and repentance of one might lead to the confession and repentance of another. Who knows the total effect produced on the persons to whom Zaccheus made his fourfold restitution?

III. JEHOVAH HIMSELF. Acknowledgment and restitution were not enough without atonement. To injure a fellow-man is to rebel against the government of God, robbing him of some possible service from the person injured. The wrong-doer, from prickings of conscience, or mere uneasiness of mind, may make some reparation to his fellow-man, whom he can see; but if he thinks he has then done all, he may find, from continued uneasiness, that something is yet unaccomplished. It is the greatest blot on sinful men, not that they are unjust to one another, but that they have come short of the glory of God. That glory must be restored, and God take the place of self, if human relations are to come right. There is no scheme of teaching or example that, acting on natural lines, will ever make men perfectly just to one another. Things must be put right with God, for of him, and through him, and to him are all things. Let no one, therefore, make confession and restitution here look large, and atonement be pushed into the corner as an unimportant detail. Just as the confession and restitution point forward to the pure and vigorous ethics of Jesus, so the slain animals point forward to him who takes away the sin of the world.—Y.

Verses 12-27


THE TRIAL OF JEALOUSY (Numbers 5:11-31).

Numbers 5:12

If any man's wife … commit a trespass against him. The adultery of the wife is here regarded only from a social point of view; the injury to the husband, the destruction of his peace of mind, even by the bare suspicion, and the consequent troubling of Israel, is the thing dwelt upon. The punishment of adultery as a sin had been already prescribed (Le Numbers 20:10).

Numbers 5:13

If it be laid. Or, "if he be hid." This verse is explanatory of the former. Taken with the manner. The latter words are not in the Hebrew. It means no doubt "taken in the act" (cf. John 8:4). Αὐτὴ μὴ ᾗ συνειλημμένη, Septuagint.

Numbers 5:14

And she be not defiled. As far as the mischief here dealt with was concerned, it was almost equally great whether the woman was guilty or not.

Numbers 5:15

He shall bring her offering for her. קָדְבָּנָהּ, "her offering;" עָלֶיהָ, "on her account." It was to be a meat offering—not connected on this occasion with any other sacrifice—of the fruits of the earth, symbolizing the fruits of her guilty, or at least care. less and suspicious, conduct. As of barley meal, not of fine wheat flour, it indicated her present low and vile estate (deserved or undeserved); as without incense or oil, it disclaimed for itself the sanctifying influences of God's grace and of prayer. Thus every detail of the offering, while it did not condemn the woman (for one found guilty could not have made any offering at all), yet represented her questionable repute and unquestionable dishonour, for even the unjust suspicion of the husband is a dishonour to the wife. Barley meal. In the days of Elisha half the price of fine flour (2 Kings 7:1), and only eaten by the poor (Ezekiel 4:12; John 6:9). An offering of jealousy. Literally, "of jealousies." קְנָאֹת, an intensive plural. An offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance. Θυσία μνημοσίνου, Septuagint. An offering to bring the woman into judicial remembrance before the Lord, in order that her sin (if any) might be remembered with him, and be declared.

Numbers 5:16

Before the Lord. Either at the brazen altar or at the door of the tabernacle.

Numbers 5:17

Holy water. Probably from the laver which stood near the altar (Exodus 30:18). The expression is nowhere else used. The Septuagint has ὕδωρ καθαρὸν ζῶν, pure running water. In an earthen vessel. Cheap and coarse, like the offering. Of the dust that is in the floor of the tabernacle. This is the only place where the floor of the tabernacle is mentioned. As no directions were given concerning it, it was probably the bare earth cleared and stamped. The cedar floor of the temple was overlaid with gold (1 Kings 6:16, 1 Kings 6:30). This use of the dust has been held to signify the fact

(a) that man was made of dust, and must return to dust (Genesis 3:19); or

(b) that dust is the serpent's meat, i.e; that shame and disgust are the inevitable fruit of sin (Genesis 3:14; Isaiah 65:25).

Of these,

(a) is not appropriate to the matter in question, since mortality is common to all, and

(b) is far too recondite to have been intended here.

It is very unlikely that the spiritual meaning of Genesis 3:14 was known to any of the Jews. A much simpler and more intelligible explanation is to be found in the obvious fact that the dust of the tabernacle was the only thing which belonged to the tabernacle, and which was, so to speak, impregnated with the awful holiness of him that dwelt therein, that could be mixed with water and drunk. For a similar reason the "sin" of the people, the golden calf, was ground to powder, and the people made to drink it (Exodus 32:20). The idea conveyed to the dullest apprehension certainly was that with the holy dust Divine "virtue" had passed into the water—virtue which would give it supernatural efficacy to slay the guilty and to leave the guiltless unharmed.

Numbers 5:18

Uncover the woman's head. In token that she had forfeited her glory by breaking, or seeming to have broken, her allegiance to her husband (1 Corinthians 11:5-10); perhaps also with some reference to the truth that "all things are naked and open to the eyes of him" with whom she had to do (Hebrews 4:13). Put the offering of memorial in her hands. That she herself might present, as it were, the fruits of her life before God, and challenge investigation of them. Bitter water. It was not literally bitter, but it was so fraught with conviction and judgment as to bring bitter suffering on the guilty.

Numbers 5:19

If no man. The oath presupposed her innocence. With another instead of thy husband. Hebrew, "under thy husband, i.e; as a wife subject to a husband (Ezekiel 23:5; Hosea 4:12). "Υπανδρος οὗσα, Septuagint. It was only as a femme couverte that she could commit this sin.

Numbers 5:21

Then the priest shall say unto the woman. These words are parenthetical, just as in Matthew 9:6. The latter part of the oath is called "an oath of cursing," because it contained the imprecations on the guilty. To rot. Hebrew, "to fall." Τὸν μηρόν σου διαπεπτωκότα,, Septuagint. To swell. The Hebrew zabeh is not of quite certain meaning, but probably this.

Numbers 5:22

Into thy bowels. Cf. Psalms 109:18. Εἰς τὴν κοιλίαν σου, Septuagint. It has been thought that these symptoms belonged to some known disease, such as dropsy (Josephus, ‘Ant.,' 3.11, 6), or ovarian dropsy. But it is clear that the whole matter was outside the range of the known and of the natural. An innocent woman may suffer from dropsy, or any form of it; but this was a wholly peculiar infliction by direct visitation of God. The principle which underlay the infliction was, however, clear: δἰ ὧν γὰρ ἡ ἁμαρτία διὰ τούτων ἡ τιμωρία—the organs of sin are the seat of the plague. Amen, amen. Doubled here, as in the Gospel of John. The woman was to accept (if she dared) the awful ordeal and appeal to God by this response; if she dared not, she pronounced herself guilty.

Numbers 5:23

In a book. On a roll. Blot them out with the bitter water. Rather, "wash them off into the bitter water," in order to transfer the venom of the curses to the water. Ἐξαλείψει … εἰς τὸ ὔδωρ, Septuagint. The writing on the scroll was to be washed off in the vessel of water. Of course the only actual consequence was that the ink was mixed with the water, but in the imagination of the people, and to the frightened conscience of a guilty woman, the curses were also held in solution in the water of trial. The direction was founded on a world-wide superstition, still prevalent in Africa, and indeed amongst most semi-barbarous peoples. In the ‘Romance of Setnan,' translated by Brugsch. Bey, the scene of which is laid in the time of Rameses the Great, a magical formula written on a papyrus leaf is dissolved in water, and drunk with the effect of imparting all its secrets to him that drinks it. So in the present day, by a similar superstition, do sick Mahomedans swallow texts of the Koran; and so in the middle ages the canonized Archbishop Edmund Rich on his death-bed washed a crucifix in water and drank it, saying, "Ye shall drink water from the wells of salvation."

Numbers 5:24

He shall cause the woman to drink. This is said by anticipation, because she did not really drink it until after the offering (Numbers 5:26).

Numbers 5:25

Offer it upon the altar. According to tile law of the minchah (Leviticus 2:1-16), only an handful was burnt as a "memorial" (Hebrew, azkarah), the rest being "presented,'' and then laid at the side of the altar to be subsequently eaten by the priests. All this was done before the actual ordeal by drinking the water, in order that the woman might in the most solemn and complete way possible be brought face to face with the holiness of God. She stood before him as one of his own, yet as one suspected and abashed, courting the worst if guilty, claiming complete acquittal if innocent.

Numbers 5:27

Shall enter into her, and become bitter. Rather, "as bitter," or "as bitterness," i.e. as producing bitter sufferings. Shall be a curse, i.e; shall be used as an example in the imprecations of the people.

Numbers 5:28

And shall conceive seed. As a sign of the Divine favour; to a Jewish woman the surest and most regarded (1 Samuel 2:5; Psalms 127:3; Luke 1:58).

Numbers 5:29

This is the law of jealousies. A law prescribed by God, and yet in substance borrowed from half civilized heathens; a practice closely akin to yet prevalent superstitious, and yet receiving not only the toleration of Moses, but the direct sanction of God; an ordeal which emphatically claimed to be infallibly operative through supernatural agencies, yet amongst other nations obviously lending itself to collusion and fraud, as does the trial by red water practiced by the tribes of West Africa. In order to justify heavenly wisdom herein, we must frankly admit, to begin with—

(1) That it was founded upon the superstitious notion that immaterial virtue can be imparted to physical elements. The holiness of the gathered dust and the awfulness of the written curses were both supposed to be held in solution by the water of jealousy. The record does not say as much, but the whole ordeal proceeds on this supposition, which would undoubtedly be the popular one.

(2) That it was only fitted for a very rude and comparatively barbarous state of society. The Talmud states that the use of it ceased forty years before the destruction of Jerusalem (if so, during our Lord's earthly lifetime); but it may be held certain that it ceased long before—indeed there is no recorded instance of its use. It was essentially an ordeal, although one Divinely regulated, and as such would have been morally impossible and highly undesirable in any age but one of blind and uninquiring faith. And we find the justification of it exactly in the fact that it was given to a generation which believed much and knew little; which had a profound belief in magic, and no knowledge of natural philosophy. 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 which could not at once be destroyed, or the imperfect moral ideas which could not at once be reformed, by making them work for righteousness and peace. It is, above all, the wisdom of God not to destroy the imperfect, but to regulate it and restrain its abuses, and so impress it into his service, until he has educated his people for something higher. Everybody knows the extreme violence of jealousy amongst an uncivilized people, and the widespread misery and crime to which it leads. It may safely be affirmed that any ordeal which should leave no place for jealousy, because no room for uncertainty, would be a blessing to a people rude enough and ignorant enough to believe in it. Ordeals arc established in a certain stage of civilization because they are wanted, and are on the whole useful, as long as they remain in harmony with popular ideas. They are, however, always liable to two dangers.

(1) They occasionally fail, and are known to have failed, and so fall into disrepute.

(2) They always lend themselves readily to collusion or priestcraft.

The trial of jealousy being adopted, as it was, into a system really Divine, and being based upon the knowledge and power of God himself, secured all the benefits of an ordeal and escaped all its dangers. It is probable enough that the awful side of it was never really called into play. No guilty woman would dare to challenge so directly a visitation so dreadful, as long as she retained any faith or any superstition. Before the time came when any Jewish woman had discarded both, the increasing facilities of divorce had provided another and easier escape from matrimonial troubles.


Numbers 5:11-31


We have here, in the letter, a piece of legislation altogether obsolete, because adapted to an age and to ideas utterly foreign to our own; yet, in the spirit, we have, as part of the moral law of God which changeth not, the unspeakable abhorrence in which the sin of adultery is held with him, and the great displeasure with which he regards the mere suspicion of it. For this ordeal was not merely or primarily to punish guilt or to restore domestic peace but to remove sin and passion from before the eyes of God. Consider, therefore—

I. THAT GOD RESERVED HIS MOST AWFUL VISITATION OF OLD TIMES FOR SUCH ADULTERY AS HAD SUCCESSFULLY ESCAPED HUMAN OBSERVATION. So there is no sin which more surely destroys a nation or a class by kindling the wrath of God against it than adultery. So the Jews in the time of the later prophets (Jeremiah 5:8; Hosea 4:2), and m the time of our Lord (John 8:7; the Talmud, as above); so the upper classes in France before the Revolution; so perhaps our own today.

II. THAT GOD DID NOT APPOINT DIVORCE AS A REMEDY AGAINST CONJUGAL UNFAITHFULNESS. For it is no remedy against the sin, but only against some of its painful consequences. The glosses and traditions of the Jewish lawyers made divorce easy and common, because they no longer believed in the righteousness of God or in the hatefulness of sin, as sin.

III. That nothing is more abhorrent from the will of God concerning us THAN THAT FIERCE JEALOUSY AND CRUEL SUSPICION SHOULD INVADE FAMILIES, and poison the purest source of human happiness. Both, therefore, sin greatly—the wife who gives the least ground for suspicion by levity or carelessness of conduct, the husband who nurses a spirit of jealousy, and does not try to bring it to the test of facts.


(1) because of the greater mercifulness of the gospel, calling men to repentance (Romans 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9); but also

(2) because of the greater severity of the moral law now revealed, threatening eternal death to all adulterers (Galatians 5:19, Galatians 5:21; Hebrews 13:4).

V. THAT THIS SPECIAL AND AWFUL PROVISION WAS MADE ONLY AGAINST THE SIN OF THE WIFE, because it is from her sin that jealousy and its consequent crimes do as a fact arise in rude communities. But under the more perfect law of Christ there is no difference made between the same sin in men and women, but rather the sin of the man is denounced because it is more lightly accounted by the world (Matthew 5:28; 1 Thessalonians 4:6, "in the matter").


Numbers 5:11-31


Just previously, regulations are laid down with respect to offences in general. Here is an offence which needed to be dealt with m a special way, as being one where restitution was impossible. The offence also destroyed a relation of peculiar sacredness and importance, and the discovery of guilt was difficult, perhaps impossible of attainment, by ordinary lines of proof.

I. THE HUSBAND'S POSITION IS RECOGNIZED. The spirit of jealousy is not condemned as in itself an evil passion. In it he might be angry and sin not. The spirit of jealousy could not be too much excited or too amply satisfied, if only the facts corresponded to his feelings. No mention is made of a similar ordeal for the husband to pass through if a spirit of jealousy were awakened in the wife, and so it may seem that more severity was meted out to the woman than the man. But the offence of an unfaithful husband, equally great of course as a sin, might not be equally dangerous as a crime. The principles of human law which compel men to graduate crime and punishment had to be remembered in the theocracy. An examination of the Mosaic laws against sexual impurity shows that they provided stringently for both sexes. The adulterer was punishable with death. A guilty wife in the discovery of her guilt dragged down her paramour (Le Numbers 20:10).

II. THE WIFE'S POSITION IS RECOGNIZED. To punish her more severely for a lapse of conjugal fidelity was really to honour her, showing that in one respect more was expected from her. It became every Israelite to walk circumspectly; it peculiarly became the Israelite matron. May we not say that the spirit of jealousy, though it might often be manifested on insufficient grounds, was nevertheless in itself a provision of God, through nature? The reputation of a wife is a very delicate thing, and was meant so to be. The tenth commandment specifies, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife." Hence we may infer there was some temptation to men to commit this sin, and wives needed to be specially on their guard. The ordeal to which God called them, hard as it might seem, had a most honourable side. Let it not be said that Mosaic legislation showed the Oriental depreciation of woman. God was caring for her even then, but she had to partake of the severity of the law, even as, long after, represented by the woman taken in adultery, she shared in the clemency and tenderness of the gospel.

III. THE UNERRING DISCOVERY OF GUILT. God took the matter away out of the obscurities of circumstantial evidence. The very nature of the offence made it difficult for a suspicious husband to get beyond presumption. "The eye of the adulterer waiteth for the twilight" (Job 24:15). But God called the accused wife among the solemnities of the tabernacle, and concealment and evasion thenceforth became impossible. Notice how the ordeal was painless in itself. There was no walking on burning ploughshares nor demand on physical endurance. It was independent also of anything like chance, as if the casting of a lot had been held to settle the matter. The bitter water was drunk, and God, who brings all secret things into judgment, showed the indubitable proof in the swollen body and the rotted thigh. Proof, sentence, and punishment were all in one.

IV. THE DISCOVERY, EQUALLY UNERRING, OF INNOCENCE. One wonders what the history of this ordeal was in practice; how often used, and with what results. We know not what terrible tragedies it may have prevented, what credulous Othello it may have restored to his peace of mind, what Desdemona it may have vindicated, and what Iago it may have overthrown in his villainous plots. "God shall bring forth thy righteousness as the light, and thy judgment as the noonday" (Psalms 37:6). There will be a final clearing of all the innocent, however many have been condemned at a human bar. The whole matter assumes its most significant aspect when we note how the apostasy of God's people is figured by gross and shameful breaches of the marriage vow (Ezekiel 16:1-63). The doom of the adulterous wife foreshadows the doom of the backsliding believer.—Y.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Numbers 5". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tpc/numbers-5.html. 1897.
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