Sin the the Camp

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp everyone who is leprous or has a discharge and everyone who is unclean through contact with the dead. You shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell.” And the people of Israel did so, and put them outside the camp; as the Lord said to Moses, so the people of Israel did.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, When a man or woman commits any of the sins that people commit by breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess his sin that he has committed. And he shall make full restitution for his wrong, adding a fifth to it and giving it to him to whom he did the wrong. But if the man has no next of kin to whom restitution may be made for the wrong, the restitution for wrong shall go to the Lord for the priest, in addition to the ram of atonement with which atonement is made for him. And every contribution, all the holy donations of the people of Israel, which they bring to the priest, shall be his. 10 Each one shall keep his holy donations: whatever anyone gives to the priest shall be his.” Numbers 5:1-10 ESV

God puts a high priority on holiness and because He set apart the people of Israel as His own possession, He expected them to live up to His exacting standards.

For you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure. – Deuteronomy 7:6 NLT

Having dealt with the Levitical responsibility for the care of the tabernacle, God now turns His attention to the rest of the tribes of Israel. And in the next two chapters, He provides Moses with some rather strange instructions that deal with a wide range of topics – from the seemingly harsh treatment of lepers and those individuals suffering from potentially contagious diseases to the trial of a wife accused of adultery and the strange regulations concerning the Nazirite vow.

But the underlying point seems to be fairly simple: God is highly concerned about the moral purity of His people. He takes the vows of His people seriously. He expects them to maintain moral and ethical standards that are superior to those of other nations. He holds His chosen people to a higher standard than the rest of the nations.

It’s interesting to note that these two chapters talk a lot about moral failure, uncleanliness, and defilement. Yet in the end, there is a beautiful statement regarding God’s desire to bless and protect His people. God wanted to show His people favor and grace. He wanted to shine the light of His glory on them. But He couldn’t do it if there was sin in the camp. He couldn’t dwell in the midst of uncleanness and defilement. He would not make His home in a place surrounded by sin.

So God takes special care to maintain external cleanliness in His people. In verses 1-4 of chapter 5, God commands that those who carry potentially deadly diseases be removed from the camp. This seems like harsh and unloving treatment of the disadvantaged, but its intent was protective and not punitive. They were placed outside the camp so that their disease would not spread, bringing disaster and death to the entire nation.

This rather startling command was meant to provide a not-so-subtle picture of how God’s people were to deal with sin found in their midst. They were to view it as dangerous and potentially deadly and remove it. Like a communicable disease, sin posed a real threat, threatening to spread throughout the camp if left unchecked. The risk of contamination was real and needed to be dealt with decisively. But God’s people always find it much easier to allow sin to exist. We are reluctant to judge, lest we be judged. Yet God seems to be reminding us that the regulations made for ensuring cleanliness in the camp of Israel suggest the adoption of similar means for maintaining purity in the church.

“And although, in large communities of Christians, it may be often difficult or delicate to do this, the suspension or, in flagrant cases of sin, the total excommunication of the offender from the privileges and communion of the church is an imperative duty, as necessary to the moral purity of the Christian as the exclusion of the leper from the camp was to physical health and ceremonial purity in the Jewish church.” – Matthew Henry, The Matthew Henry Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible

God wanted to bless His people. He wanted to shower them with His favor, but He expected them to take seriously those things that might defile them and diminish their holiness. And He had given Moses very detailed instructions regarding those physical conditions that would render a person impure and, therefore, unholy.

“If anyone has a swelling or a rash or discolored skin that might develop into a serious skin disease, that person must be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons. The priest will examine the affected area of the skin. If the hair in the affected area has turned white and the problem appears to be more than skin-deep, it is a serious skin disease, and the priest who examines it must pronounce the person ceremonially unclean.” – Leviticus 13:2-3 NLT

“If anyone has suffered a burn on the skin and the burned area changes color, becoming either reddish white or shiny white, the priest must examine it. If he finds that the hair in the affected area has turned white and the problem appears to be more than skin-deep, a skin disease has broken out in the burn. The priest must then pronounce the person ceremonially unclean, for it is clearly a serious skin disease. – Leviticus 13:24-25 NLT

These instructions go on for several chapters and make for a far-from-pleasant read. But the point behind them is clear. God viewed these skin conditions as potentially contagious and, therefore, dangerous to the well-being of the nation. The one inflicted with them was to be declared ceremonially unclean and separated from the rest of the camp until healed.

Anyone who had come into contact with a dead body was also to be considered ceremonially unclean and placed in isolation for a period of seven days (Numbers 19:11). And God provides the reasoning behind this command and the others that demanded removal from the camp.

“Remove them so they will not defile the camp in which I live among them…” – Numbers 5:3 NLT

God’s presence demanded the purity of His people, both physically and spiritually. The Levites had been charged with keeping the tabernacle holy and consecrated to the Lord. Now, God was letting the rest of the tribes know that His tabernacle must dwell in the midst of a holy people.

These chapters reveal that the purity of God’s people was a high priority to Him. Why? Because He wanted to bless them and dwell among them. He desired to show them His favor. But sin separates. Sin brings God’s anger instead of His favor. Sin destroys. And God made sure the people made the connection between physical defilement and moral uncleanness by declaring the danger of sinful behavior among His people.

“Give the following instructions to the people of Israel: If any of the people—men or women—betray the Lord by doing wrong to another person, they are guilty. They must confess their sin and make full restitution for what they have done, adding an additional 20 percent and returning it to the person who was wronged.” – Numbers 5:6-7 NLT

Sin was not to be tolerated or treated lightly. It was to be dealt with decisively and immediately. And God clarifies that sin is ultimately an affront to Him. It is a betrayal of the Lord. The Hebrew word is מַעַל (maʿal), and it refers to an act of treachery or betrayal. In committing any sin, the guilty party has displayed their unfaithfulness to the Lord. While their sin harmed another human being, it was done in violation of the will of God. So, God required that restitution be made. Their sin came at a cost. Restoration to God was not possible until payment was made to the innocent party. But if restitution was not possible, the guilty party was obligated to make things right with God.

But if the person who was wronged is dead, and there are no near relatives to whom restitution can be made, the payment belongs to the Lord and must be given to the priest. Those who are guilty must also bring a ram as a sacrifice, and they will be purified and made right with the Lord. – Numbers 5:8 NLT

While God was concerned about the interpersonal relationships between His people, He was even more concerned about their status with Him. Sins committed against others were ultimately an affront to God because He had provided strict laws concerning the interactions between His people. They were prohibited from committing murder, practicing adultery, lying, stealing, dishonoring their parents, coveting, and speaking falsely about one another.

But God knew that they would have a hard time adhering to these commands. That’s why He provided them with the sacrificial system that provided a means of atonement. Even when they committed unintentional sins, they would need a means of restoring their broken relationship with God.

“Suppose you sin by violating one of the Lord’s commands. Even if you are unaware of what you have done, you are guilty and will be punished for your sin. For a guilt offering, you must bring to the priest your own ram with no defects, or you may buy one of equal value. Through this process the priest will purify you from your unintentional sin, making you right with the Lord, and you will be forgiven. This is a guilt offering, for you have been guilty of an offense against the Lord.” – Leviticus 5:17-19 NLT

God made provision for sin. And for the people of Israel, it involved the sacrificial system. But the author of Hebrews reminds us that the sacrificial system was never intended to be a permanent solution to man’s sin problem.

The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. If they could have provided perfect cleansing, the sacrifices would have stopped, for the worshipers would have been purified once for all time, and their feelings of guilt would have disappeared.

But instead, those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year. For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. That is why, when Christ came into the world… – Hebrews 10:1-5 NLT

God has given His Son as payment for our sins – past, present, and future. We no longer have to pay the penalty that sin requires – which is death and separation from God. But we still must take sin seriously. Paul asks this powerful and probing question: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase?” (Romans 6:1 NIV). Then he provides the answer: “By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:2 NIV).

Paul goes on to tell us: “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” (Romans 6:6-7 NIV). We no longer have to sin. We have been set free from its power and its penalty. Yet we find that we still have a propensity to sin. And God expects us to treat sin with the same soberness and seriousness that He demanded of the people of Israel. So He can bless us with His favor.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.