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This chapter and the next four (through Num. 19) provide a brief account of what happened in Israel during the next 38 years. How pitifully short is this grand summary of all that was worth writing of those long tragic years in which God simply waited for a faithless generation to die in order that another generation could seize and exploit the golden opportunity which their predecessors forfeited through cowardice and unbelief. And, what is recorded is, in major part, negative. How often in the progress of Christianity has God simply had to WAIT until someone died before any further progress could be registered! A thousand congregations today occupy the same status of having to wait until certain faithless and short-sighted leaders have passed over the river. It is futile to seek any exact dates for events and revelations in these chapters. "While the children of Israel were in the wilderness" (Numbers 15:32) is the only date given, the same being the period after the rebellion of Num. 14 and until just prior to their entry into Canaan.
Gray's outline of the chapter is as good as any:F1
I. Revelation of the proper quantities of meal, oil and wine to be offered in certain sacrifices (Numbers 15:1-16).
II. Concerning the cake of "the first of [~`aricoth] (Numbers 15:17-21).
III. Requirements for the offerings to be made for sins of ignorance: (a) by the community, or (b) by individuals (Numbers 15:23-31).
IV. The proper method of execution for the capital crime of breaking the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36).
V. Commandments regarding the [~taliyth] and the tassels ([~tsitsith]) to be affixed to it (Numbers 15:37-41).
For a full discussion of the several kinds of sacrifices mentioned here reference is made to our commentary on Leviticus. It is not the character of those sacrifices that is in view here, but certain regulations concerning the amount in each case of the satellite offerings that accompanied those sacrifices, namely, the meal-offerings, the oil-offerings, and the drink-offerings (wine). Note that these are graduated, corresponding to the size and value of the animals offered. In the three situations enumerated here, the meal-offering increases from the lesser to the greater as one fourth, one third, and one half of an ephah of fine flour. And the amount of oil increases in the same ratio from the lesser to the greater as one fourth, one third, and one half of a hin. Inherent in these gradations is the principle that men should give "as the Lord has prospered them," the same principle being carried over more specifically into the N.T.
If one wonders why these specifics concerning meal, oil and wine were here spelled out in such detail, it is because "no fixed amounts were prescribed" at the time the laws were given.F2
"The laws here are addressed to the new generation,"F3 the condemned generation apparently being ignored altogether, as indicated by the words, "When ye are come into the land of your habitations" (Numbers 15:2). This is also an indication of a very probable time-lapse between this and the last chapter.
Another important indication of these verses is that the children of Israel did not scrupulously keep God's laws in the matter of all these ceremonial requirements during their wilderness sojourn. They did not circumcise their children (Josh. 5). They did not offer the required sacrifices (Amos 5:25). They continued in idolatry. "Ye have borne ... the shrine of your images, the star of your god which ye made yourselves" (Amos 5:26). They even worshipped "the host of heaven" (the sun, moon and stars) (Acts 7:42,43).
When ye are come into the land
Yes, a whole nation had rebelled, but God's purpose remained unchanged and would be fulfilled in spite of their defection; and these words have the effect of adding assurance to that second generation that the unfaithfulness of their fathers would in no wise nullify God's promise as it pertained to themselves. Thus, it ever is. If an individual, or a community, or a state, or even the whole world shall rebel against God, God's WILL will still be done, and those who succeed them may indeed through fidelity possess the blessing that others rejected.
There shall be one statute (Numbers 15:15). one law (Numbers 15:16) ..
When the situation of Israel at the time this was written is considered, especially the fact of their being in the midst of and surrounded by nations steeped in idolatry, We can see the absolute necessity of having one form of worship in the land. That alone was genuine which was prescribed by God Almighty, and no others could be tolerated, because they were idolatrous.F4
One statute. before Jehovah ..
The equality of all people before the law is one of the sacred foundations of all civilized order, and like so many other of the value-judgments of civilized man, the foundation of it must be traced to the Holy Bible. When the Prince of India asked Queen Victoria, What is the secret of England's greatness? she replied, The English Bible is the secret of England's greatness. Furthermore, wherever greatness may exist, the enabling value-judgments have the same source.
"The word [~`aricoth], here rendered "dough," is obscure; and the use of cake in Num. 15:20 favors the view that it is some kind of cereal food prepared in the home."F5
refers to the lifting of the sacrifice in the front of the altar to show that it was given unto Jehovah, and the bringing of it downward was to indicate God's giving it back to the offerer. All of these various ceremonies were discussed in the early chapters of Leviticus.
The instructions here pertain to unintentional sins, or sins through error, in the case of the whole congregation. Beginning in the next verse, the case of individual sins, not involving the congregation, but committed unwittingly, are discussed.
According to the ordinance
(Numbers 15:25). This means according to the ordinance already laid down in the Scriptures in the early chapters of Leviticus. In those chapters, no allowance was made for unintentional error, or sins.
This gives the regulations for individual sins: (a) in the instance of their having been committed unwittingly; and (b) in case they were "high handed" sins committed presumptuously and flagrantly.
indicates the challenging of authority. Thus, when God brought Israel out of Egypt with a high hand, it was a frontal challenge of all the gods of Egypt. Similarly, when one who with a high hand disobeys the specific commandment of God, it constitutes a challenge of Divine authority, called blasphemy in Num. 15:30. It is also despising God's Word (Numbers 15:31). In this connection, we should recall what the N.T. says of a presumptuous violation of God's command for Christians not to neglect the assembling of themselves together:
"Not forsaking our own assembling ourselves together ... For if we sin willfully, after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fierceness of fire that shall devour the adversaries ... he hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant wherewith he was sanctified an holy thing, and hath done despite unto (despised) the Spirit of grace" (Hebrews 10:25-29).
A reading of the whole passage just cited makes it absolutely certain that the sacred N.T. writer had this very passage in mind when the passage was given.
The following verses at once record an instance of such a willful and presumptuous sin in the case of the sabbath-breaker.
While the children of Israel were in the wilderness
This does not indicate a date for Numbers after their settlement in Canaan, but has the utility of placing this incident within the period of the 38 years sojourn in the wilderness following the rebellion at Kadesh. It applies to all of the events recorded here through Num. 19.
It had not been declared what should be done with him
Again the critics find a basis for alleged contradiction, because, as they say, the death penalty indeed had already been assigned for sabbath-breaking in the Book of Exodus. Yes, indeed! But the regulation there had not specified what manner of death was to be inflicted. Thus, the uncertainty of how the death penalty was to be executed was the cause of their inquiry before Moses in this passage. God promptly REAFFIRMED the sentence laid down in Exodus and ordered execution of the sabbath-breaker by stoning, the whole congregation to attend it, and the execution to be without (outside) the camp. God's command was promptly obeyed.
The Jews enumerated the commandments of God as 613, and the garment selected by them for the application of this regulation was the [~taliyth], or prayer shawl, and Orthodox Jews still observe this, with one exception. Uncertainty as to the exact color of blue for the cord, and the scarcity of the sea shell from which the supposed color was manufactured led them to substitute a white cord for the blue cord. It is significant that Jesus Christ himself observed this. See Matt. 9:20, where it is stated that the woman sought to touch "the border of his garment." Adam Clarke noted that this should probably be understood "as the fringe, rather than as the hem or border."F6
The [~taliyth] to which the fringe was attached was an oblong rectangular garment with a hole in the center for the head, much in the manner of the "poncho" seen in Latin America.
This device was psychological. By associating the commandments of God with the very garment of men, it naturally led to a more faithful remembrance and observance of the Divine commandments. Today, the Orthodox Jew wears this garment at all religious services. And when he dies, he is wrapped in it for his burial. The garment utilized multiple knots in the fringe in order to be able to identify each thread (with the knots), and each knot with a particular commandment.
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.