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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 5

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary



(1.) In the foregoing statutes for the sanitary and moral purity of the camp, how vividly Jehovah manifests himself as a God nigh at hand, and not afar off!

(2.) Nothing could be better adapted than these laws to create in the Hebrew mind a sense of the omniscience of Jehovah. This very Scripture may have contributed to that wonderful perception of this truth which David possessed. Psalms 139:0.

(3.) The particular providence of God could not have been doubted under an administration in which he infallibly interposed to mark the guilty and shield the innocent.

(4.) God’s holiness, and his abhorrence of sin, the conception of which was at this time very inadequate in the Hebrew mind, here shines forth. We who have enjoyed the light of a higher dispensation are often forgetful of the spiritual darkness of the masses of the people, even when led by the pillar of fire. The idea of God’s holiness dawned upon them slowly through that ritual, ordained expressly not only to illustrate this attribute of Jehovah, but to adumbrate the incarnation of the Holy One.

(5.) The fact that the only ordeal instituted by God is that which guards the sanctity of marriage shows the transcendent value of that institution, and teaches human legislators and jurists with what strict carefulness they should shield this sacred relation from the perils to which it is exposed in modern times.

(6.) But why is not the sanctity of marriage guarded on both sides? Why is there no ordeal for a suspected husband? 1.) One end of the jealousy-trial being the protection of innocence, the husband, as the stronger party and endowed with authority, was not so much in need of protection. He could not be severely oppressed or capriciously put away in divorce. 2.) To afford to the jealous wife the same appeal to Jehovah against her husband would have been derogatory to the great authority and superior dignity always accorded to him, in Oriental countries especially, and approved by the Holy Scriptures. Genesis 3:16; 1 Corinthians 11:3. 1 Corinthians 11:3.) Though the violation of the marriage vow by the husband is a sin as heinous as the infidelity of the wife, yet its social and civil effects are not so disastrous to the peace of the family and the good order of society. The husband might transgress without foisting a spurious heir upon a family: it is not so with the wife. Hence she should be entirely above suspicion. The ordeal was designed to lift her up to that enviable position. In case of the violation of the seventh commandment, proved by competent witnesses, the guilty parties, both being under marriage vows, suffered the same punishment. Leviticus 20:10.

(7.) Sceptics and visionary idealists, who demand the absolutely right in human legislation, attained by the very best method, severely criticise the trial of jealousy as unworthy of divine origin. All such we refer to Bishop Butler’s unanswerable declaration that men are endowed with the moral ability to judge of ends as right or wrong, while they are not competent to pronounce upon the means which God may select for the attainment of a right end. (Butler’s Analogy, chap. Numbers 7:2.) Moreover, all human legislators who aim at practicable legislation are compelled to regard the moral condition of those for whom they enact laws, and to aim at an attainable imperfect good rather than at an impossible ideal perfection. When God sets up a theocracy over the imperfect and depraved, it is not derogatory either to his wisdom or holiness to descend from the realm of the ideal into the sphere of the practical.

Verses 1-4


For some general reasons for the mixture of ritual legislation with history see Introduction, (1.) The purification of the camp from the defilement of leprosy was enjoined for reasons concisely stated by Dr. A. Clarke: “1.) On a purely physical reason; the disease was contagious. 2.) There was also a spiritual reason; the camp was the habitation of God, and nothing impure should be permitted to remain where he dwelt. 3.) The camp is the emblem of the Church, where nothing that is defiled should enter, and in which nothing that is unholy should be tolerated.” We may add a fourth reason. This purification was educational, as were all the other Levitical cleansings, and tended to the development of the notion of spiritual purity. “Howbeit,” says St. Paul in one of his generalizations, “that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural, and afterward that which is spiritual.”

Verse 2

2. Every leper A discussion of leprosy may be found in Leviticus 13:0. It was considered a punishment from God. The very term “leper,” in Hebrew etymology, signifies one “struck.” The Greek poet AEschylus ( Choeph., 271) portrays it as the scourge of an offended deity. It is the opinion of scientific men that the leprosy, the diagnosis of which is given in Leviticus xiii and xiv, includes all severe diseases spreading on the surface of the body in the way described, as syphilis, elephantiasis, and cancer. Leprosy proper, common in Egypt and Syria, begins imperceptibly with a few reddish, painless spots, gradually increasing for some years, and becoming more manifest. The spots become large, covering the entire skin; sometimes raised, though flat. The upper part of the nose swells and softens, the nostrils distend, the under jaw swells, the eyebrows are elevated, the ears grow thick, the ends of the fingers and toes swell, the nails grow scaly, the joints of the feet and hands separate, and the palms and soles become ulcerated. This kind is supposed by some not to be infectious. In Egypt and Palestine it was endemic in a mild form.

Every one that hath an issue See notes on Leviticus 15:2-33, where it is called a running issue. The separation enjoined was admirably adapted to prevent contagion of every kind, and to repress licentious indulgences.

Defiled by the dead The Hebrew has נפשׁ , nephesh; and the Greek ψυχη , psyche, spirit or soul, instead of the usual word for dead. In Leviticus 21:11, and Numbers 6:6, the Hebrew adds מת , meth, dead. This was a ceremonial, and not a physical or contagious, defilement. Actual touch was not necessary for defilement, but touching a grave, bearing the dead, or entering a tent or house where there was a corpse. Note, Numbers 19:11-18. The reason of the defilement attributed to a dead body is not assigned. It may be on account of its speedy decomposition in a hot climate.

Verse 3

3. Without the camp We are not to suppose that these impure persons were left without shelter. Severe indeed, and inhuman, would this banishment of morally innocent persons be, if there were no provision made for their comfort. Pest-houses specially set apart for lepers outside the towns are found in Palestine to this day. Dr. Robinson mentions one opposite the Zion gate of Jerusalem. May it not be because all manner of spiritual leprosies and impurities are without the camp that we are to go forth thence bearing Christ’s reproach? Hebrews 13:13.

In the midst whereof I dwell This is the chief reason for the sanitary ceremonial and moral cleansing of the camp. It also typically enforced the practice of moral purity: “Cleansing themselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit.”

Verses 5-10


The repetition of this law, originally enacted in Leviticus 6:1-7, seems to be for two reasons: 1.) To promote the moral purgation of the camp; and 2.) To supplement the law in case there is no goel, or next of kin. Such a case had probably arisen. See Introduction, (1.)

Verse 6

6. To do a trespass This embraces offences against the right of property, such as denying and withholding a deposit, finding and concealing lost goods, getting possessions by violence or by fraud, and concealing the wrong by lies and perjury.

Against the Lord The cardinal ethical principle involved in this is, that the creature is so intimately related to the Creator that any infringement of his rights dishonours and displeases his “Great Original.” Hence it follows, that all that morality is radically defective which treats our neighbour as a mere man, and ignores the obligations springing from his relation to God. In other words, no man can keep the second table of the law while disregarding the first; no man can love his neighbour as himself unless he loves God with all his heart.

Guilty Hebrew, asham, to be in debt or at fault. For this the trespass offering, or asham, was prescribed. See on Leviticus 6:1-7, of which this law is an epitome.

Verse 7

7. They shall confess their sin This was not a forced acknowledgment of a person detected in dishonesty which he is trying to hide, but a voluntary confession of a truly penitent heart conscious of guilt. Confession is the ordained manifestation of sincere sorrow for sin.

The principal… and fifth part Restitution, if possible, must always accompany true repentance. To confess and still clutch the “guilty prize” is a mockery of God and man. The fifth part of the value was to be added to compensate the injured person, If the crime had not been voluntarily confessed, but had been lawfully proven, the convicted thief would have been liable to a fine of fourfold if the thing had been sold or the animal slain, and there was no possibility of voluntary restitution. Exodus 22:1. The difference is, that the one is directed against flagrant and wilful thieves, and the other against those who have committed fraud through extreme want and strong temptation, and against the light of conscience which is now giving them no rest, but is prompting them to confession.

Verse 8

8. No kinsman The Hebrew goel was the nearest relative, whose duty it was to redeem his enslaved kinsman, as well as to avenge his death at another’s hand. See note introductory to Numbers 5:1, and on Genesis 9:5.

In this is implied the fact of the death of the injured party.

To the priest As the representative of Jehovah, who in a peculiar sense is the kin of the deceased, the restitution is to be made. He is our ultimate legatee and avenger. The restitution money paid to the priest was put into a common purse and distributed among all the priests in that course.

The ram of the atonement This was the sacrifice by which the expiation to Jehovah was effected. Leviticus 6:7. As he was offended by the sin, his wrath must be appeased, as well as the violated rights of man be restored. Hengstenberg interprets this to signify that Jehovah, the natural heir, who was wronged in the injured person, was to receive a double trespass offering. The original law required, with the ram, a sum of money estimated to be an equivalent to the injury done to the person. “The ram of the asham receives an imaginary value according to the estimate of the priests.” The ram presented by the delinquent “as a compensation for the spiritual debt was taxed as high as the sum which was given for the compensation of the outward material debt. By this symbolic act the idea of debt was most vividly impressed, and the necessity of making a settlement with God was clearly exhibited.” This verse supplements the original law of the trespass offering, which is silent respecting the death of the injured person who had no heir or goel. It is probable that such a case had occurred, and hence additional legislation was required.

Verse 9

9. And every offering Terumah. The original, according to Furst, signifies “any oblation, that is, a gift taken from a whole which one brings to God or to the priest.” It is supposed to have special reference here to the heave shoulder and the wave breast, the perquisites of the priestly office. Leviticus 10:12-15. The Greek version has απαρχη , firstfruits. We group together all the sources of revenue to the priests before their settlement in Canaan. 1.) One per cent. of the produce of the soil, which was one tenth of the tithes paid to the Levites. Numbers 18:26 to Numbers 28:2.) A special tithe every third year. Deuteronomy 14:28; Deuteronomy 26:12. Deuteronomy 26:3.) The five shekels for the redemption of each firstborn. Numbers 18:16. Numbers 18:4.) The redemption of persons or things especially vowed to Jehovah. Leviticus 27:5.) A five hundredth part of half the spoils of war.

Numbers 31:27; Numbers 28:6.) The show bread, the flesh of the sin offerings, peace offerings, trespass offerings, especially the heave shoulder and the wave breast. 7.) An undefined amount of the firstfruits of corn, wine, and oil.

Shall be his That is, the priest’s who ministers at the time. Thus Keil renders the tenth verse, “With regard to every man’s holy gifts, to him (the priest) shall they be; what any man gives to the priest shall belong to him.” Professor Bush interprets to him to signify the man who brings the gifts.

Verses 11-31


It has been said that the only bliss of paradise that has survived the fall is conjugal love. But even this blessing has not survived without alloys. Plighted love is sometimes unfaithful, and the sweets of wedded life are occasionally embittered by jealousy. To protect the institution of marriage the corner-stone of human society to vindicate the innocent and to punish the guilty, special rules of procedure are here ordained by Jehovah. From the nature of the crime of conjugal infidelity the usual method of proof by two or three witnesses could not be employed. Hence an extra-judicial procedure is instituted. The Lord sits upon the judgment seat, and the guilt or innocence is to be determined by himself. The ordeal is some method of appeal to God to interpose, in a supernatural manner, to indicate the guilty and to deliver the innocent lying under a false accusation. It was resorted to by our rude European ancestors when they required the suspected person to handle hot iron, or to run barefoot and blindfold in a path strewn with nine red-hot ploughshares, or to plunge the arm up to the elbow in boiling water. If God interposed to prevent harm the accused was deemed innocent. This was the ordeal by fire and by water. It will be seen, as we proceed to the study of the divine ordeal for jealousy, that it differs from all human methods of appeal to the judgment of God in this: God’s ordeal involves a supernatural punishment of the guilty, while human systems require a miracle to shield the innocent. Men’s inventions jeopardize the innocent, God’s method imperils only the wicked. Some such trial of jealousy was probably traditional in the day of Moses. The Divine Lawgiver divests it of its barbarous severities, and interposes it as a merciful shield against the blind vindictiveness of jealousy characteristic of the Orientals. The mode here commanded was a great improvement upon the former method of procedure; and, like the divorces permitted by Moses on account of the hardness of the hearts of capricious husbands, was the legislation best adapted to the condition of the people at that time. There is no account of the enforcement of this ordeal, and there is grave doubt whether recourse was ever had to it in fact. It certainly was not in harmony with the laxity of the nuptial tie prevalent in the time of Jesus Christ. Its parallel is found in the ordeal of the “red water” in Western Africa, and also in an Egyptian romance recently translated by Brugsch: “Ptahneferka copies out on a leaf of papyrus every word of a certain magical formula, dissolves the writing in water, drinks, and knows all that it contains.” SMITH’S Biblical Dictionary.

Verses 12-14

12-14. If… wife go aside Be faithless to her marriage vow.

No witness If the crime could be proven by witnesses the adulteress was to be put to death. Leviticus 18:20; Leviticus 20:10.

Taken with the manner This means taken in the very act, as in John 8:4. The Authorized Version very properly puts all these words in italics except taken, for they are not in the Hebrew. The phrase comes from an old English law term long obsolete, implying taken with the evidence of guilt fresh upon him: thus a thief was said to be taken with the mainor (Latin, in manu) when he was caught with the thing stolen upon his person, that is, in his hand.

The spirit of jealousy come upon him This form of expression would indicate that the affection did not arise within the heart, but came upon the man as an objective force. But jealousy cannot be a personality, though it may be inspired by the evil spirit. We prefer to view the phrase as a Hebraism for the strong and vehement feeling of jealousy, which frequently gains as complete a mastery over the mind as did the demons in the time of Christ. The study of Shakspeare’s impersonations of jealousy will justify the Hebrew strength of expression.

Verse 15

15. Bring his wife unto the priest The outline of this ritual consisted in the presentation of the suspected wife by her husband to the priest with an offering to bring iniquity “to remembrance.” The essential part was the oath, in which she solemnly protested her innocence, the water being merely the visible channel through which the supernatural curse was to operate, as the clay put upon the eyes of the blind was a visible link between the divine omnipotence and the opening of the eyes. God was invoked to pronounce sentence, and his presence was recognised by throwing a handful of the barley meal on the blazing altar, the woman meanwhile standing before the Lord with the offering in her hand. The priest stood holding the earthen vessel of holy water, mixed with dust taken from the floor of the sanctuary, declaring the woman free from evil consequences if innocent, and dooming her to terrible sufferings if guilty. The curses written in a book were then washed off into the water; the woman drank it, and uttered “Amen, amen,” to the curses falling upon her head from the lips of the priest.

Her offering None were allowed to approach the sanctuary empty handed. Exodus 23:15. The Hebrew word for offering corban is from the verb to approach, implying that an offering of access or introduction must be made to Jehovah, in accordance with Oriental usage when an inferior comes into the presence of a superior.

The tenth of an ephah of barley meal The ephah, according to Josephus, was about eight and a half gallons; but the Rabbies say that it was about half that quantity. The barley meal, without oil or frankincense, was a coarse and cheap offering, symbolizing the gross animal character and vileness of the crime in question, and the sad state of the family offering it. It was not an atoning sacrifice, but a memorial solemnly referring the decision to Jehovah. This meat offering, made without the accompaniment of burnt offerings and peace offerings, proves its independence, which has been denied by Bahr and Kurtz on insufficient grounds. No oil was to be poured upon it, probably because the oil is not only the emblem of joy, but in its threefold use for light, food, and healing, symbolizes the illumination, the spiritual sustenance, and restoring efficacy of the Holy Ghost, whose inner abode presupposes the sincerity of the worshipper, the very point in question in the case of the suspected wife.

Nor… frankincense Since this was the emblem of acceptable prayer, it could not be offered by her who might be regarding iniquity in her heart, in which case prayer, instead of being a savour of sweet smell, is a stench in the nostrils of Jehovah.

Bringing iniquity to remembrance This was designed not only to quicken the slumbering conscience of the accused, but to exhibit to all spectators the turpitude of this great sin. In an anthropomorphic view of God, it was an appeal to the memory of God to remind him of his promise to interpose for the decision of this trial.

Verse 16

16. Bring her near The pronoun her may in the Hebrew be translated it, and refer to the offering, since the woman is presented in Numbers 5:18, and since it was the office of the priest to present unto Jehovah all offerings.

Before the Lord “Before the Lord” here relates to the altar for burnt offerings before the door of the tabernacle.

Verse 17

17. Holy water Hebrew, holy waters; Greek, pure living water. This was at hand in the brazen laver near the altar. Exodus 30:18. The water of separation, mixed with the ashes of the red heifer, ceremonially defiled the pure and purified the unclean. Numbers 19:20-21. As neither of these was the purpose of this rite, the water of separation would have been inappropriate. There is no authority here, nor elsewhere in the Bible, for the holy water superstitiously used in the Roman, Greek, and Armenian Churches.

An earthen vessel Thus symbolizing the baseness of the crime. As the vessel could be easily broken, no monument would remain to bring to the husband’s remembrance his wife’s criminality, if guilty, or his groundless jealousy, if innocent. Leviticus 6:28; Leviticus 11:33.

The dust… of the tabernacle Endued for the occasion with supernatural qualities by Jehovah. Dust in several passages of the Holy Scripture typifies the state of condemnation before God. Genesis 3:14; Deuteronomy 28:24; Joshua 7:6; Micah 7:17. It would not harm the innocent.

Verse 18

18. The woman before the Lord In Numbers 5:16 the offering was “before the Lord” when brought to the altar. The woman was “before the Lord” when, with her face toward the ark, where dwelt the Shekinah, she stood before the door of the tabernacle.

And uncover the woman’s head The Mishna prescribes that she be clothed in black, with a rope girded around her waist. It would seem from the text that her head was vailed, probably also in black. This uncovering seems to typify her removal from the protection of her husband, and her exposure to the wrath of God. It was necessary, also, that the vail be removed in order that the people might mark the woman, and note the Divine stroke upon her in the future if she were guilty. We cannot accept the statement that dishevelling the hair is all that is here meant. In the same Hebrew words Aaron is forbidden to uncover his head in mourning for his sons, Nadab and Abihu. Leviticus 10:6. The jealousy offering was to be in her hands until her oath had entitled her to have it burned upon the altar. The woman, holding her offering the priest, with the curse-water in his hand and the jealous husband, the priests, and people looking on, constitute a tableau vivant of deep and solemn interest.

The bitter water It was not bitter in its taste, but in its effects upon the guilty. The Septuagint reads, water of conviction.

Verse 19

19. Instead of thy husband Hebrew, under thy husband; that is, being in the power of thy husband. This explains the words, no man.

Verse 21

21. The Lord make thee… an oath So signal a mark of Jehovah’s wrath was she to bear, that in future adjurations she was to be held up as the conspicuous example and measure of his vengeance, and the imprecation was to be, “May I become like this accursed woman!”

Make thy thigh to rot Hebrew, to fall.

Belly to swell Greek, to be burnt. The precise nature of the punishment here threatened is more clearly gathered from the original. The thigh is a euphemism for the sexual organs.

Genesis 46:26. Hence the painful infliction, the falling of the womb, attended by an inflammation, which, in the Septuagint, is rendered by the word burn. Michaelis suggests that an ovarian tumour, with its dreadful suffering and emaciation, is here denounced as the penalty. Josephus calls it the ordinary dropsy. Theodoret says, “The punishment shall come from the same source as the sin.” See Romans 6:19. The instrument of the momentary sin shall be the channel through which the penal pain shall be poured during all the life of the convicted adulteress. Verily, “the way of the transgressor is hard.”

Verse 22

22. Amen, amen True, true. Thus the guilty one appropriates the penalty to herself, and proclaims the righteousness of her sentence. Thus in the judgment day will the Divine rectitude shine out so brightly that the left-hand assembly will involuntarily say Amen, amen, to the curse which will abide through the duration of the soul. This is the first time that this word amen is used in the Bible. “It involves the ideas of swearing, acceptance, and truthfulness.”

Verse 23

23. Write these curses in a book Hebrew, the book, as if there were a particular scroll on which curses were written.

Blot them… with… bitter water Hebrew, Wipe them into the bitter water. This was a symbolic act for conveying the curse to the water. The Arab of to day thinks this is the best way to take a prescription. The charm-worshippers in Africa habitually seek the utmost efficacy of a written charm in the same manner. See the note on Numbers 5:11.

Verse 24

24. Shall cause the woman to drink This verse is proleptical. The drinking is not twice, but only once, in Numbers 5:27. The eating or drinking anything symbolizes its full acceptance. So the prophets, Jeremiah 15:16; Ezekiel 3:1-3; and Jesus Christ, John 4:14; John 6:50.

Verse 26

26. The memorial thereof The Hebrew for memorial differs from that in Numbers 5:15. Furst thinks that it is because the frankincense and oil are not used, it being a memorial of iniquity. The memorial was both objective, bringing the offerer to the remembrance of God, and subjective, bringing God to the remembrance of the sacrifice. See note on Leviticus 2:2.

Verse 28

28. Then she shall be free Exempt from the curse. This required no miracle. See the Introduction.

Shall conceive seed As the reward of her chastity, or as the natural consequences of her restoration to her husband’s affection. If already pregnant, she should have a happy delivery, instead of an infamous death.

Verse 31

31. Then shall the man be guiltless He would have incurred guilt if he had, without proof of criminality, treated his wife as guilty.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Numbers 5". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/numbers-5.html. 1874-1909.
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