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David Guzik's Commentaries
on the Bible

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Numbers 5 - Separating from Sin

A. Separation from the effects of sin.

1. (1-2) The command to put out of the camp those who are "unclean."

a. As Israel prepares to march to the Promised Land, the leper (Leviticus 13), those with a discharge (Leviticus 15), and any priest who would touch a dead body, except that of a close relative (Leviticus 21:1) were commanded to be put out of the camp of Israel until ceremonially clean; now God says that Israel must do what He had previously commanded.

b. It wasn't that any of these things made a person, or proved them to be a notorious sinner (though that was often wrongly assumed); but leprosy, unclean discharges, and dead bodies were reminders of the effects of sin - from which Israel must separate as they prepare to march on the Promised Land.

i. Might this also be an analogy of our sin nature inherited from Adam? Even as a leper does not "choose" leprosy, but "inherits" it, so our sin nature is not chosen - but inherited from Adam. Of course, we choose individual acts of sin, but our sin nature was inherited.

c. "Probably this ordinance gave the first idea of a hospital, where all those who are afflicted with contagious disorders are put into particular wards, under medical treatment." (Clarke)

d. Clearly, at this stage in Israel's progression to the Promised Land, they have been organized and ordered by God - now, they will be challenged to purity. God is looking to make Israel a Promised Land people - and that means a purified people.

2. (3) The breadth and reason of the command.

a. Neither male nor female was to be excluded; neither perceived "sympathy" nor perceived "superiority" could spare someone the consequences of sin's ravages.

b. In the midst of which I dwell: The great reason for this commanded separation is because God lives in the camp of Israel, so sin and its effects must be separated from.

i. God is concerned with far more than our individual acts of sin; He demands our sin nature be addressed. Only in Jesus can our sin nature - the old man - be crucified, and the nature of Jesus - the new man - be granted to us as new creations. God can't abide with the old man, but can with the new man.

c. You can't be a Promised Land person if the ravages of sin are openly evident in your life. Certainly, Promised Land people are not sinlessly perfect; but they are not openly, obviously, walking in the sin nature - well illustrated by those set outside the camp.

B. Separation from the damage our sin does.

1. (5-7) The command to make restitution.

a. Because restitution is commanded, this is obviously a case of sinning against another person (such as with theft, Leviticus 5:14-6:7) or withholding from God that which belongs to Him.

b. The restitution previously commanded must now be made - repaying that which was taken or withheld, and adding a 20% (plus one-fifth of it) penalty.

2. (8) How to make restitution to the dead.

a. If there is not a surviving kinsman to make restitution to, then the restitution payment must go to the Lord. The payment of restitution was just as important - if not more important - for the guilty one paying it as it was for the victim receiving it.

3. (9-10) The right of every Israelite to partake of the offerings he brought.

a. Certain offerings (such as the peace offering of Leviticus 3) were intended to have a portion of the offering (like a good piece of meat) returned, so they and their family could have a "fellowship meal" with the Lord.

b. This command reminds of the absolute right the offerer had to share in such offerings; it is essentially a way to preserve an open door for fellowship with the Lord - the priest couldn't take the offerer's portion away, a king couldn't tax it away.

c. In the midst of this chapter on the separation from sin, God therefore reminds Israel of the purpose of this separation - fellowship with God. This, ultimately, is the reason to pursue purity: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matthew 5:8).

C. Separation from the suspicion of sin.

1. (11-14) The situation.

a. This unique passage deals with the problem of a spirit of jealousy in a marriage. Obviously, unfounded jealousy has spoiled many a marriage, and justified jealousy has forced attention on confronting the sin of adultery - in this passage, God gives Israel a way to deal with it.

i. "This law was given partly to deter wives from adulterous practices, and partly to secure wives against the rage of their hard-hearted husbands, who otherwise might upon mere suspicions destroy them, or at least put them away." (Poole)

b. Sometimes jealousy in a marriage is revealed to be completely justified; other times it is found to be completely false. Either way, God knows it means something must be dealt with, and here He gives Israel a way to do it.

i. Often, our spouse knows if we have given our bodies - or our hearts - to another, no matter how desperately one tries to hide it. Other times, jealousy is just plain off the wall - and also needs to be resolved.

2. (15) The offering to resolve a spirit of jealousy.

a. The jealous husband was to bring a certain amount of barley meal, and this grain only - not accompanied by any oil or frankincense, things which customarily accompanied a grain offering.

b. There was to be no oil or frankincense - which were thought to "sweeten" a typical grain offering; but there is nothing "sweet" about this offering for remembrance, for bringing iniquity to remembrance - this offering was truly bitter, not sweet, because either a wife would be found guilty of adultery, or a husband found guilty of unfounded suspicion.

c. For bringing iniquity to remembrance: It wasn't that perhaps the wife committed adultery and didn't "remember" it; it was not for the husband or wife to remember, but for the whole community to remember the terrible nature of either adultery or false accusation.

3. (16-28) The ceremony of the offering.

a. Water would be made bitter from the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle; and while the woman held the grain offering in her hand (a reminder of fellowship with God), the priest would pronounce an oath over the woman.

i. The idea of uncover the woman's head (Numbers 5:18) is to unbind and "let down" her hair. "The unbinding of the woman's hair is another hint that she was viewed as unclean. 'Lepers' had to let their hair hang loose as a mark of their uncleanness." (Wenham)

b. In his oath, the priest would solemnly announce that if the woman was innocent of the accusation of adultery, she would be free from this bitter water that brings a curse. But if she was in fact guilty of adultery, she would be under the curse.

i. The effect of the curse was to make your thigh (here, a euphemism for the womb) rot and your belly swell.

ii. After the priest said this, the woman had to respond: Amen, so be it. She had to agree that if she was innocent, she deserved vindication; but if guilty, she deserved the punishment of the curse. She was not allowed the option of saying, "well, I did it, but it was really all right in the sight of God. After all, we loved each other, or my husband neglected me, and . . ." At the very least, this ceremony demanded that sin be called sin - guilty or innocent!

c. After reading the curse, and hearing the woman's agreement, the priest would write the oath on a scroll - and scrape the dried ink into the bitter water.

i. Think of what made the water bitter: Both the "holy dust" of the tabernacle floor, and the oath containing a curse to the sinner! The combination of seeing the holiness of God and the penalty to sinners truly is bitter!

d. After this, the priest would offer the grain offering - a picture of fellowship and thanks to God - and the accused woman would drink the bitter water.

e. Over time, the judgment of God would be evident. If she came down with some time of internal disease, especially affecting her womb, it would be seen as evidence of her guilt. But if she was free from disease, and continued to bear children, it would be seen as vindication.

i. "The rabbins say that the trial by the waters of jealousy was omitted after the Babylonish captivity, because adulteries were so frequent amongst them, that they were afraid of having the name of the Lord profaned by being so frequently appealed to!" (Clarke)

ii. The rabbis also said that if the woman was guilty, the same disease would come upon the man she had committed adultery with; but they also said that even if the wife had been guilty, but her husband had been guilty of adultery also, the bitter water would have no effect on her.

f. Observations.

i. Clearly, this is evidence that God does not want couples to live in an on-going state of jealousy. He gave a mechanism how jealous feelings could either be proved or disproved, and the relationship would deal with the truth from there.

ii. Why is this ceremony only dealing with an adulterous wife? Why not a husband? For the most part, the Mosaic law is "case law" - not meant to anticipate every potential situation, but to give examples that will set precedence for other cases. It is likely that the same ceremony would be practiced if a wife became suspicious of a husband's adultery.

iii. How did the ceremony work? Certainly, there was some supernatural element involved; drinking dusty and inky water won't cause internal disease in only those guilty of adultery. But as well, the mental stress of knowing you are guilty and openly proclaiming the rightness of judgment upon the guilty, cannot be good for one's health!

iv. At the very least, this ceremony made the entire community (it was seemingly a public ceremony) aware of the evil of adultery - and the seriousness of trying to hide your sin. The existence of the ceremony itself was an incentive to faithfulness in marriage, and therefore good for the entire nation.

v. Surely, both the holiness of God and the perfection of His word testifies against us; we should be forced to drink a bitter cup that would destroy us. But Jesus drank it for us!

4. (29-31) Conclusion.

a. This was a ceremony meant to resolve things. Either the husband was right or wrong in his jealousy; if his wife had in fact been adulterous, he was right - if not, wrong. The issue had to be settled, and this was God's way to do it.

b. The last two matters of purity - in regard to restitution and resolving jealousy - look to make Israel a pure, Promised Land people in their personal relationships. You can't be a Promised Land person if your relationships with others stink! You must make restitution and get things resolved.


Copyright Statement
David Guzik's Commentaries on the Bible are reproduced by permission of David Guzik, Siegen, Germany. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Guzik, David. "Commentary on Numbers 5". "David Guzik's Commentaries
on the Bible". <http://classic.studylight.org/com/guz/view.cgi?book=nu&chapter=005>. 1997-2003.  

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