New European Commentary


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Deeper Commentary

Num 5:1 Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying,
Numbers 5 contains three related pieces of legislation: 1) Removing lepers from the camp 2) Making reconciliation to your brother 3) The trial of jealousy. Chapter 4 is about the numbering of the Levites, and chapter 6 goes on to a new topic- the Nazarite vow. We are therefore to understand the three pieces of legislation in Numbers 5 as related to each other. The common theme they all have is that interpersonal issues must be addressed- the lepers who had been concealed in the camp were to be removed, brethren reconciled with, and unfaithfulness or jealousy issues faced up to and permanently resolved. Time never really heals but rather does it allow issues to fester until major spiritual and inter-personal breakdown occurs. That's one simple and very relevant lesson to take from this chapter.

Num 5:2 Command the children of Israel that they put out of the camp every leper, and everyone who has an issue, and whoever is unclean by the dead-
The fact the people responded by removing such persons from the camp (:3) suggests that those who concealed their skin diseases or the fact they had touched dead relatives had somehow been allowed to remain within the camp. The theme of the chapter is that such private issues must be faced and openly resolved.

Those suffering with the "discharge" are parallel with 'lepers' in Num. 5:2 as needing to be put out of the camp. I suggested on Lev. 13:1 that "lepers" doesn't refer to those with Hansen's disease, but to those struck down by Divine judgment. Those with a "discharge", literally a 'flowing', were in the same category. In neither case is involuntary disease or human bodily situation a reason for moral uncleanness. Just as human nature of itself doesn't separate between God and man; for all we posit about human nature, we say about the undefiled Lord Jesus who fully had that same human nature.

Num 5:3 Both male and female you shall put outside of the camp that they not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell-
The Lord Jesus suffered and died, shedding the blood of atonement, "outside the camp" (Heb. 13:13). We are bidden go forth to the Lord Jesus "outside the camp", just as those who "sought Yahweh" did when there was no tabernacle (Ex. 33:7). The people watching Moses as he walked out to it, without the camp, therefore looks ahead to a faithless Israel lining the via Dolorossa and watching the Lord walk out to His place of crucifixion. And we are to get behind Him and follow Him there, stepping out from the mass of Israel. As the Lord Jesus suffered "outside the camp", so various parts of the Mosaic sacrifices were to be burnt there (Lev. 4:12,21; 8:17; 9:11; 16:27); and yet it was the blood of those sacrifices which achieved atonement (Heb. 13:11; Num. 19:3,9). "Outside the camp" was the place of excluded, condemned sinners (Lev. 13:46; 24:14; Num. 5:3,4; 15:35,36; 31:13,19), and it was here that the Lord Jesus died, in identification with us. 

Num 5:4 The children of Israel did so, and put them out outside of the camp; as Yahweh spoke to Moses, so did the children of Israel-
Israel’s obedience was mainly when it came to disciplining others, giving materially and making things. But the Pentateuch emphasizes their disobedience when it came to personal morality, internal spirituality and worshipping God alone rather than any idols. We must analyze our own acts of obedience and see if they follow a similar pattern. To be externally religious isn’t difficult, indeed we can rather enjoy being like that.

Num 5:5 Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying-
See on :1 for the connection between the three pieces of legislation in this chapter.

Num 5:6 Speak to the children of Israel: ‘When a man or woman commits any sin that people commit, so as to trespass against Yahweh, and that soul is guilty-
The trespass was "against Yahweh"- but the sins in view were against other members of God' people; :7 makes it clear that it was individuals who had been trespassed against. Sin against each other is sin against God; how we treat each other is how we treat God. This sets the scene for the trial of jealousy section which follows. We would expect to read in :7 that reconciliation must be achieved with the offended person and an offering made to God. But assuming :7 refers to an offering to be made only if there was no living person to reconcile with, that is not stated here- because the impression we are left with is that sin against another is sin against God, and reconcilliation with man is in that sense reconcilliation with God.

Num 5:7 then he shall confess his sin which he has done, and he shall make restitution for his guilt in full, and add to it the fifth part of it, and give it to him in respect of whom he has been guilty-
Both confession and restitution were required. These two elements are still required if we are to truly resolve broken relationships. Praise is related to the realization that sin has been forgiven. Hezekiah's praise on realizing God's mercy to him was expressed in a desire to walk in quiet fellowship with God for the rest of his life. There is no suggestion that praise was some kind of ecstatic exuberance of emotion. The normal Hebrew word translated "praise" is also translated "confess" in the context of confessing sin (Lev. 5:5; 16:21; 26:40; Num. 5:7). Contrition of heart because of appreciating our own failures is therefore one way of praising Yahweh's Name. So often does the word "praise" occur in the context of praising the Name of Yahweh, or the praising of "the God of Israel", i.e. Yahweh.

The idea of restitution for guilt could mean that once the sin had been dealt with, so had the guilt. There need be no abiding sense of guilt if we believe in forgiveness. David's later Psalms have little indication of any such sense of abiding guilt concerning his sins with Bathsheba and Uriah.

Num 5:8 But if the man has no kinsman to whom restitution may be made for the guilt, the restitution for guilt which is made to Yahweh shall be the priest’s; besides the ram of the atonement, by which atonement shall be made for him-
"When a man or woman commits any sin... he shall confess... the man" (:6-8) is proof that the Bible often uses the masculine singular to mean ‘any person’, of either gender. As discussed on :7, it is important to note that atonement is intended to deal with guilt. Indeed, Divine forgiveness is really the only way to ultimately deal with guilt.

Num 5:9 Every heave offering of all the holy things of the children of Israel, which they present to the priest, shall be his-
The portion to be waved was placed on the priests hands (Ex. 29:25), and then 'waved' or 'swung' towards the altar and then back- not from right to left. The idea was that the offerings were first given to God, recognizing they should be consumed on the altar to God; but then given back to the priest by God. So they ate them having first recognized that their food was really God's, all was of Him, and He had given it back to them to eat. This should be our spirit in partaking of any food, as we are the new priesthood. Our prayers of thanks for daily food should include this feature. All things are God's and anything we 'offer' to Him is only giving Him what He has given to us (1 Chron. 29:14,16).

Num 5:10 Every man’s holy things shall be his: whatever any man gives the priest, it shall be his’-
The emphasis here upon how the priest represented God is to pave the way for the manifestation of God in the priest which we will read of in the next section about the trial of jealousy.

Num 5:11 Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying-
There were various possibilities for how a man should respond in this situation. He could have his wife stoned; divorce her; put her through this ‘trial of jealousy’; or simply forgive her. We too have a range of options open to us when wrong is done to us or when we suspect it has been. The very existence of these options encourages us to think through our responses, and surely inspires us to choose the way of grace over the way of personal revenge or justification.

See on :1 for the connection between the three pieces of legislation in this chapter. See on :1 for the connection between the three pieces of legislation in this chapter.

Num 5:12 Speak to the children of Israel, and tell them: ‘If any man’s wife goes astray, and is unfaithful to him-
AV "And commit a trespass against him". The whole trial of jealousy tends to assume guilt, hence the water is described immediately as "bitter water" (:18), even though the water only became bitter if she was guilty (:24). There were various teachings in the Law of Moses about sexual immorality- the woman could have been killed (Lev. 20:10), but the varying options were to encourage thoughtful response. It would be facile to think that there can only be one disciplinary response to sexual failure in the church today. We have options, and the process of choice is to exercise our grace.

Num 5:13 and a man lies with her carnally, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and is kept close, and she is defiled, and there is no witness against her, and she isn’t taken in the act-
If a man's wife committed adultery he could have her killed; or he could put her through the trial of jealousy of Num. 5, with the result that she would become barren; or he could divorce her (Dt. 22:19; 24:1 RV; Lev. 21:14; 22:13). Within a Law that was holy, just and good (Rom. 7:12), unsurpassed in it's righteousness (Dt. 4:8; and let us not overlook these estimations), there were these different levels of response possible. But there was a higher level: he could simply forgive her. This was what God did with His fickle Israel, time and again (Hos. 3:1-3). And so the Israelite faced with an unfaithful wife could respond on at least four levels. This view would explain how divorce seems outlawed in passages like Dt. 22:19,29, and yet there are other parts of the OT which seem to imply that it was permitted. It should be noted that there were some concessions to weakness under the Law which the Lord was not so willing to make to His followers (e.g., outside the marriage context, Dt. 20:5-8 cp. Lk. 9:59-62; 14:18,19). He ever held before us the Biblical ideal of marriage.

Num 5:14 and the spirit of jealousy comes on him, and he is jealous of his wife, and she is defiled: or if the spirit of jealousy comes on him, and he is jealous of his wife, and she isn’t defiled;-
Jealousy is not sinful of itself- God portrays Himself as a God jealous over us. It is a function of deep love. The Law of Moses upheld the position of women far more than contemporary legal codes. The man who falsely accused his wife would've been deeply shamed- see on :31. The innocent woman had the promise [or was it a command?] of :28 that she would conceive seed- the greatest honour for any Hebrew woman. As to why the woman had no power to accuse the man- that remains a difficult question, but I would suggest that in a society where polygamy was accepted and even seen as desirable by women [as it is in many parts of Africa today], the fact her husband slept with another woman was not necessarily seen as it is in Western society today. I have personally heard middle aged African women boasting of how many young women their husband gets to sleep with.

This provision for the trial of jealousy appears to have been a concession to human weakness, in this case, male weakness. For the New Testament outlaws envy (the Hebrew word translated “jealousy” here has this sense): Rom. 1:29; Phil. 1:15; 1 Tim. 6:4; Tit. 3:3. It could be that James 4:5 alludes to the spirit of male jealousy which this legislation sought to make a concession to (:14). The simple lesson for us can be that God does indeed make concessions to our human weakness; but we are to use them sparingly, and realize that their very existence is actually intended to inspire us not to make use of them but to serve God on the highest level we can.

Num 5:15 then the man shall bring his wife to the priest, and shall bring her offering for her, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal. He shall pour no oil on it, nor put frankincense on it, for it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of memorial-
Oil and frankincense made the offering smell attractive and gave the flame a pleasant colour. But these were not to be added- because this was a jealousy offering. The hint was that this was not pleasing to God. He allowed, and still allows, men to act in their hot blooded jealousy regarding others' actual or perceived sins against them. But He is warning that this is not pleasing to Him; just as we can operate a policy of forgiving others only if they repent, but this is a lower level compared to forgiving without repentance, and operating such a policy puts us in an impossible position. The man who made use of Numbers 5 likewise put himself in a lose-lose position. We note here that there appears no historical example of the legislation ever being used in practice, perhaps exactly because of this.

Bringing iniquity to memory- Time and again, these Hebrew words are used in appeals to God not to bring our sin to remembrance (Ps. 79:8; Is. 64:9; Jer. 31:34). And Paul surely alludes to the same idea in teaching that the way of love does not keep a record of wrong, it doesn't bring others' sin to remembrance (1 Cor. 13:5). By offering this sacrifice, the man was asking that God would remember her sin against her. And he had to bring the offering for her. No spiritually minded man would want God to remember sin against anyone. The whole structure of the legislation is geared against the man doing these things.

Num 5:16 The priest shall bring her near, and set her before Yahweh-
The language of being brought near and set before Yahweh is precisely that of the priests being anointed and consecrated (Num. 3:6; 16:9; Ez. 44:15). The idea may be to suggest her acceptability before God in His service if she were innocent. Being before Yahweh may mean that she as a woman was allowed to come right up to the door of the tabernacle- something a chauvinist ancient society would have struggled with. Again, everything in this legislation is really geared against the man treating the woman like this.  

Num 5:17 and the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water-
The earthen vessel and dust are references to the creation of man and woman from the dust. Perhaps this was to serve as a gentle reminder to all involved that we are all but dust. Dust and water are all that a human being is- the woman was to have the curses for her sin removed not on the basis of the shedding of blood, for she had committed a sin requiring death- but the punishment for that sin could be obliterated on the basis of her humanity. We are being taught here to cut others some slack, even when they have sinned, and certainly when we merely suspect them of sin, on the basis that they [along with us] are merely dust and water, human.

Num 5:18 The priest shall set the woman before Yahweh, and let the hair of the woman’s head go loose, and put the grain offering of memorial in her hands, which is the grain offering of jealousy. The priest shall have in his hand the water of bitterness that brings a curse-
A woman's hair was seen as her glory, and a covered head was associated with shame. It could be argued that the woman was being treated as innocent until proven guilty, and even invited to openly display her glory. The uncovering of the woman's head was a form of shaming (as in 1 Cor. 11:5,6). She had to be shamed whether or not she was guilty; and this led the man to a lose-lose scenario. If she was innocent, then he had needlessly shamed him, she would likely not love him in future, and he had to bear the sin of doing that (:31). If she were guilty, then he had to support a barren wife for the rest of her life, seeing the curses about killing or divorcing her were to be blotted out.

The allusion here in 1 Cor. 11:5,6 is only one of several such allusions to Numbers 5 in 1 Corinthians 11. The idea there of drinking unto condemnation or blessing / justification simply has to be understood in the Numbers 5 context. And it is no accident that the language of a woman having an uncovered head also occurs. What's the connection and the bigger picture? I suggest that what was happening in Corinth was that members who had sinned were being publically shamed before the congregation by e.g. the sinful sisters being made to sit in the meeting with uncovered heads. In Middle Eastern societies today, forcing a woman to uncover her head is a source of shame. Paul is saying that paradoxically, such misbehaviour in the Corinth ecclesia was actually 'shaming' those demanding it; "I speak this to your shame" (1 Cor. 6:5; 11:22; 15:34). The allusions to Numbers 5 would therefore be saying: 'You are publically shaming some sisters by making them remove their veils / head coverings in your meetings; and by the way in which you eat the Lord's supper, you are also purposefully shaming some (:22). Instead, you should be the ones in shame for your behaviour. By doing so, even if indeed those sisters have sinned, you are acting like the husband who uses the Numbers 5 legislation. Instead, whenever you drink the cup, examine yourselves and not others, and remember that you are the one who is being tested by the Lord's cup- either to your condemnation or justification'.

Num 5:19 The priest shall cause her to swear, and shall tell the woman, If no man has lain with you, and if you haven’t gone aside to uncleanness, being under your husband, be free from this water of bitterness that brings a curse-
Many primitive societies have some such ritual. In Islam in such a case, the suspected woman must vow that if she is guilty, then she will die and lose her children, preferably going to Mecca to make the vow. In some African societies, a woman must jump into water etc. The existence of the law of jealousy was therefore a concession to human weakness and psychological need.

Num 5:20 But if you have gone astray, being under your husband, and if you are defiled, and some man has lain with you besides your husband-
The man is described as having lain with the woman, rather than the woman laying with the man. Even though a woman is spoken of as taking sexual initiative in 'laying down with' a partner in Lev. 20:16. So again we get the impression that the legislation somehow pities the woman, describing her as having gone astray and implying her sexual partner had taken the initiative.

Num 5:21 then the priest shall cause the woman to swear with the oath of cursing, and the priest shall tell the woman, Yahweh make you a curse and an oath among your people-
God prefers not to condemn people, but to allow them to condemn themselves in their own words. For sin is its own condemnation. His passion rather is to save. 

When Yahweh allows your thigh to fall away, and your body to swell;-
This phrase is notoriously difficult to interpret. The swelling of the belly could mean that even though she had avoided getting pregnant by her adultery, her body would swell in an imitation pregnancy- but she would not have a child. The NEB seems to get it right in rendering it 'have a miscarriage'. This would appear to be the meaning of the idiom. If the woman was visibly pregnant and her husband wondered how the child could be his, then he would naturally feel jealous. The immorality in view had been hidden from him (:13), so the only reason he would have to doubt her was when she was noticeably pregnant. Most women who are say 4 months pregnant (i.e. visible) carry their pregnancy to term, so the loss of the child would've been seen as the direct curse of God. Women in those days were surely stronger than today, therefore the termination of a pregnancy after four months from natural causes would've been most unusual and seen as God's hand. This of course provides yet another of many windows onto the vexed question of abortion. It was not that the dusty water itself made her lose the child- the loss of the child was from God's hand. And yet it was her husband who was responsible for the decision, because there were a variety of ways prescribed in the Law for dealing with sexual failure. He didn't have to put her through the trial of jealousy- indeed, Hosea did not when Gomer bore Lo-Ammi ['not my people']. He forgave her, rather than using the Numbers 5 legislation.

Num 5:22 and this water that brings a curse will go into your bowels, and make your body swell, and your thigh fall away. The woman shall say, Amen, Amen-
"Thigh", "bowels" and "body" appear to refer to her reproductive organs; barrenness was to be the judgment for her sin. Perhaps we can infer from this that she had slept with another partner in order to get pregnant, as perhaps her husband was apparently infertile or impotent. So her motive may not have been simply sexual lust. Therefore the judgment was bareness- appropriate to the nature of her sin, seeing she had slept with the other partner specifically in order to get pregnant. The jealous husband would have to be married for the rest of his life to this barren woman, which was seen as a terrible situation to be in; it would be better, therefore, not to make her barren, and not to go down the path of this trial of jealousy. But rather to simply forgive her.

Num 5:23 ‘The priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall blot them out into the water of bitterness-
The curses were that if a woman committed adultery, she could be killed or divorced. But if the jealous husband made use of this legislation, then those curses were removed. If she was guilty, he could not kill or divorce her. She would be barren, but he would have to support her for the rest of her life. And their relationship would not be up to much because of the public humiliation. And if she was innocent, then he had alienated her by shaming her, and (:31 implies) he would have to bear his iniquity for the rest of his life. So to apply the Numbers 5 legislation was a lose-lose scenario. The idea was that the only sensible way out was to curb the hot blood of jealousy, and forgive, whether the sin was real or imagined. This is a powerful lesson to us.

The water became bitter only if the woman was guilty (:24). The curses of condemnation were written by the priest [an interesting incidental reference to the literacy of at least some in early Israel]- but removed by the bitter water. The implication could be that condemnation is removed by condemnation; we must face our sins and be condemned for them in this life if we are to be saved from condemnation. If we would condemn ourselves in this life, we shall not be condemned at the last day. The serpent on the pole was a symbol of sin, and yet it was this which leads to our salvation from condemnation. The whole trial of jealousy is often alluded to by God in His jealousy over unfaithful Israel; He promises to "blot out" their sin after they have experienced condemnation (Is. 43:25). The curses written in the book were to be given to Israel because God was jealous (Dt. 29:20); this is another allusion to these laws, showing that God is the ultimately jealous husband of Israel.


Num 5:24 He shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that causes the curse; and the water that causes the curse shall enter into her and become bitter-
The water at that stage was only water, it "became bitter" to her if she was guilty. There is surely some connection with our drinking the Lord's cup. To drink a cup of wine from the Lord is elsewhere used as a metaphor of condemnation. This is the great paradox of the breaking of bread meeting- by accepting the cup of condemnation, it becomes the cup of blessing to us. The Corinthians were told that they would “provoke the Lord to jealousy" by breaking bread and yet also worshipping idols (1 Cor. 10:22). This is surely an allusion to the “trial of jealousy". A curse was recited and then the believer drunk a cup; if they were unfaithful, they drunk to their condemnation. Paul’s allusion suggests that each day we break bread and drink the cup, we as the bride of Christ are going through the trial of jealousy. Brutal honesty and self-examination, and not merely of our lives in the last few days, is therefore crucial before drinking the cup.

Num 5:25 The priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy out of the woman’s hand, and shall wave the grain offering before Yahweh, and bring it to the altar-
For "wave", see on :9. "Out of..." can as well be translated "above". The idea seems to be that the priest placed his hands upon her hands as they swung the offering before Yahweh. It all sounds like a kind of peace offering. Perhaps the idea was that the woman was to be at peace with God whatever happened- either through being declared innocent, or through repentance.

Num 5:26 The priest shall take a handful of the grain offering, as its memorial, and burn it on the altar, and afterward shall make the woman drink the water-
The "memorial portion" of the offerings was to serve as a reminder to God, as it were, of the covenants which He "remembered". He of course doesn't forget His covenant but ever remembers it (Ps. 105:8 etc.), yet He is presented in human terms as having His memory rekindled, as it were, by human prayer, faith, situations and sacrifices so that He "remembers the covenant" (Gen. 8:1; 9:15; Ex. 2:24; 6:5; Lev. 26:42,45; Num. 10:9 and often). The regular sacrifices were such a "memorial" or 'reminder'- both to God and to His people. The place of prayer, regular sacrifice of giving, breaking of bread at the "memorial meeting" etc., are all equivalents for us under the new covenant.   

Num 5:27 When he has made her drink the water, then it shall happen. If she is defiled, and has committed a trespass against her husband, that the water that causes the curse will enter into her and become bitter, and her body will swell, and her thigh will fall away; and the woman will be a curse among her people-
This is all the language of infertility. See on :22. If the woman became widely known as a curse, this was really bringing the name of her husband into dishonour. Again, it seems all is geared against the man subjecting his wife to this process- if he didn't forgive her, he stood to lose so much himself.   

Num 5:28 If the woman isn’t defiled, but is clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed-
A prophecy or a command? If a command, then this would require her husband to resume relationship with her after his outbreak of baseless jealousy.

Num 5:29 This is the law of jealousy, when a wife, being under her husband, goes astray, and is defiled-
The Corinthians were told that they would “provoke the Lord to jealousy" by breaking bread and yet also worshipping idols (1 Cor. 10:22). This is surely an allusion to the “trial of jealousy". A curse was recited and then the believer drunk a cup; if they were unfaithful, they drunk to their condemnation. Paul’s allusion suggests that each day we break bread and drink the cup, we as the bride of Christ are going through the trial of jealousy. Brutal honesty and self-examination, and not merely of our lives in the last few days, is therefore crucial before drinking the cup.

Num 5:30 or when the spirit of jealousy comes on a man, and he is jealous of his wife; then he shall set the woman before Yahweh, and the priest shall execute on her all this law-
The Hebrew word translated "zeal" in the context of God's zeal for us (Is. 9:7) really means the jealousy which flares up in a man for a woman (the same word is in Num. 5:14,15; Prov. 6:34; Song 8:6 etc.). That jealousy burning like fire (Ps. 79:5) is His passion for us His people. He is a jealous God in His zeal for us; and therefore any other relationships with the things of this world cannot be contemplated by us. That zeal of God will be poured out upon us at the second coming, resulting in a consummation with Him as the wife of His covenant (Is. 42:13,14; 64:1).

Num 5:31 The man shall be free from iniquity, and that woman shall bear her iniquity’-
What was the man's iniquity? The implication is that if the woman was innocent, then the husband was guilty of sin. But what sin? I can only conclude: 'The sin of slandering someone on the basis of jealousy'. The hint is that until she were proven guilty, then he was guilty of this sin of slander. Only her being proven guilty released him from that guilt. So often, slander is on the basis of jealousy. The legislation ends at this point; there is no demand for a sacrifice from him. If he was genuinely repentant, he could of course offer a freewill offering and seek to obey the spirit of the earlier legislation in this chapter about personal offence against another (:6-8). The silence of the record about this perhaps implies that if a person does create slander against another on the basis of jealousy, then they have to go away and live with that, and there is no specifically prescribed, enforced ritual of atonement for it.