Book of Numbers Chapter Five Commentary by
Pastor Ron Beckham
In this chapter the Lord instructed Moses and the people of Israel about 1) dealing with infectious diseases, 2) how to make restitution for sin, 3) donations to clergy, and 4) how to handle jealousy, which is an infection of the soul. Verses 1-3: "Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 'Command the sons of Israel that they send away from the camp every leper and everyone having a discharge and everyone who is unclean because of a dead person. 3 You shall send away both male and female; you shall send them outside the camp so that they will not defile their camp where I dwell in their midst.' 4 The sons of Israel did so and sent them outside the camp; just as the Lord had spoken to Moses, thus the sons of Israel did." How would a primitive people, knowing nothing of what we call "modern" medicine, cope with an infectious disease that could touch many people? The answer in most cultures for thousands of years has been isolation, and that is precisely the instruction given by the Lord here. Trouble in our lives, including disfigurement, isolation and shame, shows individuals their need of the Lord, and that need can lead to faith. Leprosy at any point in history has been a terrible blow, both to the infected and to their loved ones. But isolation could spare those loved ones from a similar fate, and when God isolates us, His purpose is always higher than our understanding. He brings good out of failure and victory out of disaster. Our loss, our grief, our need, can bring us to the Lord.
Verses 5-10: "Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 6 'Speak to the sons of Israel, ‘When a man or woman commits any of the sins of mankind, acting unfaithfully against the Lord, and that person is guilty, 7 then he shall confess his sins which he has committed, and he shall make restitution in full for his wrong and add to it one-fifth of it, and give it to him whom he has wronged. 8 But if the man has no relative to whom restitution may be made for the wrong, the restitution which is made for the wrong must go to the Lord for the priest, besides the ram of atonement, by which atonement is made for him. 9 Also every contribution pertaining to all the holy gifts of the sons of Israel, which they offer to the priest, shall be his. 10 So every man’s holy gifts shall be his; whatever any man gives to the priest, it becomes his.'" We all have some understanding of the "sins of mankind" mentioned in Verse 6. They are the wrongful acts, thoughts and words of individuals within humanity—including both what we have done and what was done to us. 100% of us are the perpetrators and victims of such sins, and like dirty laundry needs to be washed, we need to be made clean. The Holy Spirit, through the apostle Paul, observed in Romans 3:23, "ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." We are shown both the cost of our sin and the Remedy in Romans 6:23—"The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." These Scriptures in Numbers reveal that payment for sin must be made to the victim or their relative, if possible, or to the priest (or other clergy) if not possible. 1 John 1:8 shows us clearly that, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." And 1 John 1:9 tells us the remedy: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." A song contains the words, "I must tell Jesus..." something we all need to do.
The balance of this chapter in Numbers, deals with the problem of jealousy, an emotion that has destroyed marriages, families and nations throughout the centuries. You might wonder why this section of Scripture is so hard on the women involved and seemingly easier on the men. An answer is found in Israel's recent (at that time) release from slavery in Egypt. Everyone is influenced by the culture that surrounds us, perhaps especially when we are slaves within it, and in the Egypt of that time, women were the sexual agressors. Israel had a cultural problem that needed correcting, and God was outlawing practices that would harm them now and in the future.
Verses 11-15: "Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 12 'Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘If any man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him, 13 and a man has intercourse with her and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband and she is undetected, although she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act, 14 if a spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife when she has defiled herself, or if a spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife when she has not defiled herself, 15 the man shall then bring his wife to the priest, and shall bring as an offering for her one-tenth of an ephah of barley meal; he shall not pour oil on it nor put frankincense on it, for it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of memorial, a reminder of iniquity.'" God sees the future and He is already there, just as He is in the present and past. He saw, from the moment of these verses, every bit of marital jealousy that would ever occur. He intimately knew the present and future need of this law for Israel. An offering had to be given because whether the woman was innocent or guilty, the husband's rage had to be dealt with, just as the rage in our hearts can only be quieted through an offering—given feely to us in the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
Verses 16-22: "Then the priest shall bring her near and have her stand before the Lord, 17 and the priest shall take holy water in an earthenware vessel; and he shall take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. 18 The priest shall then have the woman stand before the Lord and let the hair of the woman’s head go loose, and place the grain offering of memorial in her hands, which is the grain offering of jealousy, and in the hand of the priest is to be the water of bitterness that brings a curse. 19 The priest shall have her take an oath and shall say to the woman, 'If no man has lain with you and if you have not gone astray into uncleanness, being under the authority of your husband, be immune to this water of bitterness that brings a curse; 20 if you, however, have gone astray, being under the authority of your husband, and if you have defiled yourself and a man other than your husband has had intercourse with you' 21 (then the priest shall have the woman swear with the oath of the curse, and the priest shall say to the woman), 'the Lord make you a curse and an oath among your people by the Lord’s making your thigh waste away and your abdomen swell; 22 and this water that brings a curse shall go into your stomach, and make your abdomen swell and your thigh waste away.' And the woman shall say, 'Amen. Amen.'" Nothing here reveals what would happen if the wife refused to accompany her husband to the priest, but if she did refuse it would point toward her guilt. "Holy water" is a representation of the "living water" in John 4:10, seen in the parable of the "laver" in Exodus 30:18, and the Lord Himself is the "Bread of Life" of John 6:48, here glimpsed as the "barley meal" in Verse 15. The wasting away and swelling of her thigh and abdomen, could stem from her fear, resulting in a psychosomatic disorder, and also could come directly from the Lord's hand, for He knows the guilt and innocence of us all.
The Lord could simply reach out of heaven and destroy the sinner at any time, for He sees every thought and act on earth, but if He did that, humanity would have been exterminated a long time ago—you and I could not have been born in that scenario, and we would not exist, giving us no opportunity to place our faith in the Lord. Also note in Leviticus 20:10 that BOTH the man and woman, "the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death." The verses here offer the innocent wife a path to freedom from the jealous anger of her husband. But the guilty, both male and female, were to die.
Verses 23-24 continue, "The priest shall then write these curses on a scroll, and he shall wash them off into the water of bitterness. 24 Then he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings a curse, so that the water which brings a curse will go into her and cause bitterness." Drinking this awful substance would cause terror in the woman and a strange relief within her husband. As the woman drank, she had a strong impetus to silently cry out, "Help me, Lord," the beginning of faith, and her husband had the opportunity to begin to trust in his wife (and the Lord) at last. She literally DRANK the words, the curses that were invoked by the priest, and Verses 25-26 continue: "The priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy from the woman’s hand, and he shall wave the grain offering before the Lord and bring it to the altar; 26 and the priest shall take a handful of the grain offering as its memorial offering and offer it up in smoke on the altar, and afterward he shall make the woman drink the water." Terror filled this woman as she choked down the water and gagged on the smoke from the altar. She watched in stunned silence as the priest raised up the offering and waved it toward heaven, and if she hadn't reached out to the Lord before, she was likely to seek Him now.
Verses 27-28: "When he has made her drink the water, then it shall come about, if she has defiled herself and has been unfaithful to her husband, that the water which brings a curse will go into her and cause bitterness, and her abdomen will swell and her thigh will waste away, and the woman will become a curse among her people. 28 But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, she will then be free and conceive children." The jealous person, like the husband of these verses, has a wasting disease, bringing bitterness of the soul that ruins the marriage, the family, the world. The swelling and wasting of these verses is merely the outward reflection of a reality that goes much deeper. If she is innocent of the charge against her, the couple has the potential for reconciliation, the marriage can continue, and children might joyously be brought into the nation Israel. A curse has been turned into a blessing.
The section concludes with Verses 29-31: "This is the law of jealousy: when a wife, being under the authority of her husband, goes astray and defiles herself, 30 or when a spirit of jealousy comes over a man and he is jealous of his wife, he shall then make the woman stand before the Lord, and the priest shall apply all this law to her. 31 Moreover, the man will be free from guilt, but that woman shall bear her guilt.'" These verses look directly at the woman's role in adultery, but obviously the man is guilty as well and we can see God's attitude toward such men in Matthew 5:28—"Whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart." The adulterer was to die and the Lord does not play favorites. The woman here in Numbers would "bear her guilt" only if she was guilty. The husband would be freed from the jealousy that caused his guilt when it was determined that his wife was innocent. When things go wrong, in our attitudes and actions, we are all to "stand before the Lord" who does the impossible in making things right.
Father, we are all guilty in Your sight. Jealousy is a poison that ruins everyone, and we confess our sin of Jealousy. Heal us, Lord, from hardness of heart, and fill us with the faith and love that comes from God. In Jesus Name. Amen.