Our Indescribable and Inexplicable God

15 Now as I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them. 16 As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl. And the four had the same likeness, their appearance and construction being as it were a wheel within a wheel. 17 When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went. 18 And their rims were tall and awesome, and the rims of all four were full of eyes all around. 19 And when the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose. 20 Wherever the spirit wanted to go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. 21 When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those rose from the earth, the wheels rose along with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.

22 Over the heads of the living creatures there was the likeness of an expanse, shining like awe-inspiring crystal, spread out above their heads. 23 And under the expanse their wings were stretched out straight, one toward another. And each creature had two wings covering its body. 24 And when they went, I heard the sound of their wings like the sound of many waters, like the sound of the Almighty, a sound of tumult like the sound of an army. When they stood still, they let down their wings. 25 And there came a voice from above the expanse over their heads. When they stood still, they let down their wings.

26 And above the expanse over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance. 27 And upward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were gleaming metal, like the appearance of fire enclosed all around. And downward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness around him. 28 Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around.

Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking. – Ezekiel 1:15-28 ESV

For centuries, artists have attempted to recreate the fantastic scene described in Ezekiel’s vision, and their efforts have resulted in a host of ethereal, otherworldly depictions that almost defy the range of man’s imagination. Their depictions border on the surreal and illustrate man’s incapacity to understand or explain the glory of God. But in their defense, each of them based their artwork on the words of Ezekiel. They simply illustrated what Ezekiel attempted to elucidate. But this young priest was at a great disadvantage because he was trying to describe the indescribable and explain the inexplicable. Hampered by a finite human mind and a limited vocabulary, Ezekiel did his best to recreate his vision with words. But his efforts would prove futile because he was attempting to describe “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord” (Ezekiel 1:28 ESV).

While Ezekiel appears to be describing a series of different individuals and objects, the scene is meant to illustrate the glory of the Lord. This entire chapter should be viewed as a depiction of the majesty and magnificence of Jehovah, the Creator-God who rules and reigns over all. The all-mighty, transcendent God of the universe was providing Ezekiel with a composite picture of His essence that was intended to engender a response of awe and reverential fear. And it worked, because Ezekiel claims, “When I saw it, I fell face down on the ground” (Ezekiel 1:28 NLT).

Ezekiel got the big picture. He correctly viewed the entire scene as a divine depiction of his God. And, as a priest, Ezekiel would have known that it was impossible for any human being to see God and live to tell about it. He would have been well versed in the words that God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai. The man whom God had chosen to liberate His people from their captivity in Egypt had expressed his desire to see God’s glory. Moses had seen God’s glory displayed in the burning bush and had repeatedly spoken with Him, but he longed for something greater.

Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” – Exodus 33:18 ESV

But God let Moses that his request was not only impossible, but it would also be suicidal. So, He provided Moses with a viable alternative.

…and he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” – Ezekiel 33:19-20 ESV

Like Moses, Ezekiel would see God’s glory and live to tell about it. He would see indescribable things and attempt to explain them with words that could never do them justice. The four living creatures, the wheels within wheels, the crystal expanse, and the sapphire thrown were all intended to depict God’s glory. Ezekiel was being given a rare opportunity to see the Almighty but in a way that produced awe and wonder instead of death.

It was the apostle Paul who described Yahweh as “the blessed and only almighty God, the King of all kings and Lord of all lords” (1 Timothy 6:15 NLT). And he went on to explain God’s transcendent, unapproachable nature.

He alone can never die, and he lives in light so brilliant that no human can approach him. No human eye has ever seen him, nor ever will. All honor and power to him forever! – 1 Timothy 6:16 NLT

It is impossible to know exactly what Ezekiel saw but that has not stopped artists from trying to depict it. But no painting, engraving, or illustration will ever be able to capture the glory of God.

Every aspect of Ezekiel’s vision was meant to reinforce the greatness and glory of God. The four different faces of the four living creatures reveal that God is sovereign over all creation. He rules over humanity, the wild beasts, domesticated animals, and the birds of the air – because He made them all. And the wheels within wheels were intended to depict God’s omnipresence; completely unhindered by time or space. According to Ezekiel, the wheels “went in any of their four directions without turning as they went” ( Ezekiel 1:17 ESV). The rims of the wheels were covered with eyes, illustrating the omniscience of God. He knows all because He sees all.

And He accomplishes all this while sitting on His throne above the great expanse. Ezekiel’s focus becomes fixed upon “a figure whose appearance resembled a man” (Ezekiel 1:26 NLT). But He is far from human in nature.

From what appeared to be his waist up, he looked like gleaming amber, flickering like a fire. And from his waist down, he looked like a burning flame, shining with splendor. All around him was a glowing halo, like a rainbow shining in the clouds on a rainy day. – Ezekiel 1:27-28 NLT

This is no ordinary king seated on a man-made throne. It is the King of kings and Lord of lords. Ezekiel is being given a glimpse of God Almighty, but it is a representation and not the real thing.

“It was a deeply-held tenet of Israelite religion from Moses onwards that God could not be visibly expressed, and for that very reason idolatry was out. But given the possibility of a theophany, no form but the human form could conceivably have been used to represent the Deity. It was, however, no mere human that Ezekiel saw: His radiance was surrounded by the glory of a rainbow, and the prophet could show his awe in no other way than by falling on his face in the dust before his God.” – L. E. Cooper Sr., Ezekiel

It is interesting to note that Ezekiel does not attempt to describe God’s face or countenance. All he writes about is the appearance of gleaming metal, fire, and brightness. According to Paul, God “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16 ESV). The psalmist states that God “wraps Himself in light as with a garment” (Psalm 104:2 BSB). The prophet Daniel was also given a vision of God and he described it in similar terms.

…the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire. – Daniel 7:9 ESV

Both Daniel and Ezekiel were given the privilege of seeing God’s glory, and both found it nearly impossible to put it into words. They were struck by the brightness of His very presence. He emanated light so bright that it could only be described as burning fire. It was intense and virtually unapproachable. This imagery reflects the holiness and purity of God. It was the apostle John who wrote, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5 ESV).

This majestic, all-knowing, holy, omnipresent God of the universe was reminding Ezekiel that He was still on His throne and well aware of the fate of the people of Judah. He had not turned His back on them. His power had not diminished and His love for them had not faded. The all-powerful, ever-loving, always-faithful God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was about to deliver a message to His chosen people and He had chosen Ezekiel as His messenger. God had gotten Ezekiel’s attention, and now Ezekiel was ready to listen to what his glorious God had to say.

Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking. – Ezekiel 1:28 ESV

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.

Potential Trouble in Paradise

1 These are the stages of the people of Israel, when they went out of the land of Egypt by their companies under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Moses wrote down their starting places, stage by stage, by command of the Lord, and these are their stages according to their starting places. They set out from Rameses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month. On the day after the Passover, the people of Israel went out triumphantly in the sight of all the Egyptians, while the Egyptians were burying all their firstborn, whom the Lord had struck down among them. On their gods also the Lord executed judgments.

So the people of Israel set out from Rameses and camped at Succoth. And they set out from Succoth and camped at Etham, which is on the edge of the wilderness. And they set out from Etham and turned back to Pi-hahiroth, which is east of Baal-zephon, and they camped before Migdol. And they set out from before Hahiroth and passed through the midst of the sea into the wilderness, and they went a three days’ journey in the wilderness of Etham and camped at Marah. And they set out from Marah and came to Elim; at Elim there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they camped there. 10 And they set out from Elim and camped by the Red Sea. 11 And they set out from the Red Sea and camped in the wilderness of Sin. 12 And they set out from the wilderness of Sin and camped at Dophkah. 13 And they set out from Dophkah and camped at Alush. 14 And they set out from Alush and camped at Rephidim, where there was no water for the people to drink. 15 And they set out from Rephidim and camped in the wilderness of Sinai. 16 And they set out from the wilderness of Sinai and camped at Kibroth-hattaavah. 17 And they set out from Kibroth-hattaavah and camped at Hazeroth. 18 And they set out from Hazeroth and camped at Rithmah. 19 And they set out from Rithmah and camped at Rimmon-perez. 20 And they set out from Rimmon-perez and camped at Libnah. 21 And they set out from Libnah and camped at Rissah. 22 And they set out from Rissah and camped at Kehelathah. 23 And they set out from Kehelathah and camped at Mount Shepher. 24 And they set out from Mount Shepher and camped at Haradah. 25 And they set out from Haradah and camped at Makheloth. 26 And they set out from Makheloth and camped at Tahath. 27 And they set out from Tahath and camped at Terah. 28 And they set out from Terah and camped at Mithkah. 29 And they set out from Mithkah and camped at Hashmonah. 30 And they set out from Hashmonah and camped at Moseroth. 31 And they set out from Moseroth and camped at Bene-jaakan. 32 And they set out from Bene-jaakan and camped at Hor-haggidgad. 33 And they set out from Hor-haggidgad and camped at Jotbathah. 34 And they set out from Jotbathah and camped at Abronah. 35 And they set out from Abronah and camped at Ezion-geber. 36 And they set out from Ezion-geber and camped in the wilderness of Zin (that is, Kadesh). 37 And they set out from Kadesh and camped at Mount Hor, on the edge of the land of Edom.

38 And Aaron the priest went up Mount Hor at the command of the Lord and died there, in the fortieth year after the people of Israel had come out of the land of Egypt, on the first day of the fifth month. 39 And Aaron was 123 years old when he died on Mount Hor.

40 And the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negeb in the land of Canaan, heard of the coming of the people of Israel.

41 And they set out from Mount Hor and camped at Zalmonah. 42 And they set out from Zalmonah and camped at Punon. 43 And they set out from Punon and camped at Oboth. 44 And they set out from Oboth and camped at Iye-abarim, in the territory of Moab. 45 And they set out from Iyim and camped at Dibon-gad. 46 And they set out from Dibon-gad and camped at Almon-diblathaim. 47 And they set out from Almon-diblathaim and camped in the mountains of Abarim, before Nebo. 48 And they set out from the mountains of Abarim and camped in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho; 49 they camped by the Jordan from Beth-jeshimoth as far as Abel-shittim in the plains of Moab.

50 And the Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying, 51 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 52 then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places. 53 And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it. 54 You shall inherit the land by lot according to your clans. To a large tribe you shall give a large inheritance, and to a small tribe you shall give a small inheritance. Wherever the lot falls for anyone, that shall be his. According to the tribes of your fathers you shall inherit. 55 But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. 56 And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.” Numbers 33:1-56 ESV

The people of Israel are almost home. After more than 40 years in the wilderness, they stand on the eastern bank of Jordan River waiting for God’s command to cross over and begin their conquest and occupation of the land of promise. The day they had long been waiting for had finally arrived. There had been a lengthy delay, but now it was time to enjoy what God had promised so long ago.

But as with most things associated with God, the blessing was tied to a requirement. He had one last instruction to give them before they took possession of the land, and it was a fairly significant one. They must drive out all the people who were living there. On top of that, they had to destroy all the idols and pagan shrines erected to the gods of the land. They were to smash every vestige of idol worship they found. In other words, God expected them to clean house before they set up house.

Sounds simple enough doesn’t it? But if you’re the least bit familiar with the story of the Israelites, they didn’t exactly follow God’s instructions to the letter. They took a few liberties. It’s almost as if the enemy (Satan) was standing there just as he had been in the garden of Eden, asking the question, “Surely, God has not said…”

I can just hear Satan whispering in their ears, “You don’t have to get rid of ALL the idols, just most of them.” Or maybe he worded his temptation this way: “You might want to leave one of the pagan shrines intact, just in case Yahweh doesn’t come through for you.”

And as far as ridding the land of all its occupants, Satan probably did his best to convince the people of God just how politically incorrect and insensitive this might appear to the rest of the people in the region. They probably thought to themselves, “We don’t want to get off on the wrong foot with our new neighbors, do we?”

And God seemed to know that the people would have second thoughts about His command, so He warned them what would happen if they failed to obey.

“But if you fail to drive out the people who live in the land, those who remain will be like splinters in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will harass you in the land where you live. And I will do to you what I had planned to do to them.” – Numbers 33:55-56 NLT

“Disobey me,” God says, “and you will live to regret it.” This was not a suggestion, but a command. God expected them to follow His requirements without delay or deviation. He had a good reason for what He was asking them to do, and He knew exactly what would happen if they chose to disobey Him. If the Israelites failed to remove the land’s occupants, their enemies would become a constant threat and a thorn in their side. They would never learn to live amicably together. So, cleansing was critical for spiritual survival.

In his commentary on the book of Numbers, Dr. Thomas Constable writes, “The repetition of ‘all’ (Numbers 33:52) stresses the importance of completely clearing the land of its inhabitants and their religious paraphernalia. God wanted to clean up the land spiritually and to make it a ‘holy land.’ The land was a gift from God to His first-born son, Israel (Numbers 33:53). God warned the Israelites what would happen to them if they were not completely obedient (Numbers 333:55-56). The Canaanites would be a constant source of irritation to them, and God would deal with His people as He planned to deal with the Canaanites.”

God wanted to purify the land spiritually and make it holy. That reminds me of what God wants to do with my life. He wants to clean it up spiritually and set it apart for His use. He is about removing anything in my life that might defile or defeat me. He wants to clean house.

But I tend to hang on to certain remnants of my past. I want to give the enemy some footholds in my life where he can live at peace. I want to keep some of the idols that were there before God came to occupy the land. I find the idols comforting. They bring me a little bit of peace and assurance. But God wants to purge my life of any vestiges of the past. He wants to make all things new. To receive all the blessings the Promised Land had to offer, the people had to obey God fully. The same thing is true for us today. To enjoy all the blessings our new life in Christ offers, we must obey God fully. God makes this clear in His Word.

…throw off your old evil nature and your former way of life, which is rotten through and through, full of lust and deception. – Ephesians 4:22 NLT

Don’t lie to one another. You’re done with that old life. It’s like a filthy set of ill-fitting clothes you’ve stripped off and put in the fire. – Colossians 3:9 MSG

The night is almost gone; the day of salvation will soon be here. So don’t live in darkness. Get rid of your evil deeds. Shed them like dirty clothes. Clothe yourselves with the armor of right living, as those who live in the light. We should be decent and true in everything we do, so that everyone can approve of our behavior. Don’t participate in wild parties and getting drunk, or in adultery and immoral living, or in fighting and jealousy. But let the Lord Jesus Christ take control of you, and don’t think of ways to indulge your evil desires. – Romans 13:12-14 NLT

God was looking for change in the lives of the Israelites. He wanted to purge and purify them, and that process began with a thorough cleansing of the land. His desire was to rid the landscape of their lives of any and all vestiges of the past.

Like the Israelites, we must take our set-apart status seriously.  We must remove all the idols and false gods that might draw us away from full reliance upon Him. If we do, we will be blessed. If we don’t, we will always find ourselves doing battle with past enemies and tempted to worship the false gods of our former life. Cleansing is always the key to blessing.

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.

The Fight of Faith

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Avenge the people of Israel on the Midianites. Afterward you shall be gathered to your people.” So Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian to execute the Lord’s vengeance on Midian. You shall send a thousand from each of the tribes of Israel to the war.” So there were provided, out of the thousands of Israel, a thousand from each tribe, twelve thousand armed for war. And Moses sent them to the war, a thousand from each tribe, together with Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, with the vessels of the sanctuary and the trumpets for the alarm in his hand. They warred against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every male. They killed the kings of Midian with the rest of their slain, Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian. And they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword. And the people of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their little ones, and they took as plunder all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods. 10 All their cities in the places where they lived, and all their encampments, they burned with fire, 11 and took all the spoil and all the plunder, both of man and of beast. 12 Then they brought the captives and the plunder and the spoil to Moses, and to Eleazar the priest, and to the congregation of the people of Israel, at the camp on the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.

13 Moses and Eleazar the priest and all the chiefs of the congregation went to meet them outside the camp. 14 And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. 15 Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? 16 Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. 17 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. 18 But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves. 19 Encamp outside the camp seven days. Whoever of you has killed any person and whoever has touched any slain, purify yourselves and your captives on the third day and on the seventh day. 20 You shall purify every garment, every article of skin, all work of goats’ hair, and every article of wood.”

21 Then Eleazar the priest said to the men in the army who had gone to battle: “This is the statute of the law that the Lord has commanded Moses: 22 only the gold, the silver, the bronze, the iron, the tin, and the lead, 23 everything that can stand the fire, you shall pass through the fire, and it shall be clean. Nevertheless, it shall also be purified with the water for impurity. And whatever cannot stand the fire, you shall pass through the water. 24 You must wash your clothes on the seventh day, and you shall be clean. And afterward you may come into the camp.” Numbers 31:1-24 ESV

This is a difficult chapter. As I read it this morning I was struck by the seeming violence and barbaric nature of the scene it portrays. Something about it jars our modern-day sensibilities as we read about an entire civilization being wiped out, of innocent women and children being slaughtered. It seems reminiscent of the tribal warfare and genocide taking place in remote places around our contemporary world and chronicled by the media.

Yet this is the story of the people of God doing the will of God. In reading this story we run the risk of being repulsed by the violence and becoming judgmental of a God who would justify such actions. Or we can become callous and insensitive to the very real battle the people of God found themselves in as they attempted to live as a people of faith in the midst of a fallen world. Either extreme is wrong. Many have rejected the God of the Old Testament as a blood-thirsty god who slaughtered indiscriminately and rather heartlessly. Others have reduced the details surrounding the lives of the Old Testament characters to nothing more than moralistic stories that have lost their vitality and any sense of reality. Yet these were real people living real lives and having to engage in very real battles of life and death. The fight of faith was anything but a metaphor.

To understand what was going on, we have to step outside of our modern context. We have to immerse ourselves in the culture into which the Israelites were entering as they prepared to take possession of the land. This was not Disneyland. It was a hostile environment inhabited by pagan people groups who were vehemently opposed to Israel and their God. The NET Bible makes the following comment regarding the nature of the war that God commanded Moses to wage against the Midianites:

“The command in holy war to kill women and children seems in modern times a terrible thing to have been done (and it was), and something they ought not to have done. But this criticism fails to understand the situation in the ancient world. The entire life of the ancient world was tribal warfare, necessitating warfare. God’s judgment is poured out on whole groups of people who act with moral abandonment and in sinful pursuit.” – NET Bible Study Notes

The relationship between the Midianites and Israelites was a strained one. As the people of Israel had begun to make their way to the land promised to them by God, they had to pass through the land of Midian. But the Midianites feared the Israelites and saw them as a threat to their safety and autonomy. So the Midianite king, a man named Balak, had hired a seer named Balaam to place a curse on the unwanted intruders. Motivated by a sizeable reward, Balaam had repeatedly tried to fulfill the king’s wish but failed. God prohibited him from following through on his plan.

So, having failed at his assignment, the pagan soothsayer returned home without his reward. But the story didn’t end there. It seems that Balaam came up with a workaround. Since Yahweh wouldn’t allow him to curse the Israelites, he developed a simple, yet ingenious plan that would cause them to curse themselves. Moses described it in great detail in chapter 25.

Balaam convinced King Balak to use the Midianite women as weapons against the Israelites. But rather than wielding swords and spears, these women used their feminine wiles. They successfully seduced the men of Israel into engaging in sexual immorality which eventually led to these men committing idolatry. In doing so, they caused the Israelites to turn their backs on God. These women posed a moral threat, rather than a military one. But that is what made them so dangerous.

Balaam’s goal was to destroy the people of God from within, without ever having to raise a sword. So, God commanded that they be destroyed. Otherwise, their presence would be a constant threat to the spiritual well-being of the people of God. The danger was real and the solution was sobering. The Midianites had effectively infiltrated the Israelite camp and caused God’s people to commit the unpardonable sin of idolatry. And God knew that the presence of the Midianites would pose a continued threat to Israel’s moral health as a nation. So, He gave Moses one last assignment.

“On behalf of the people of Israel, take revenge on the Midianites for leading them into idolatry. After that, you will die and join your ancestors.” – Numbers 31:2 NLT

Moses obeyed God’s command and ordered the wholesale destruction of the Midianites and their cities. A force of 12,000 men carried out the mission, killing all the Midianite men and burning all their towns and villages. They even executed Balaam for his role in the whole affair. But the text reveals that the Israelite soldiers couldn’t bring themselves to kill the Midianite women.

Then the Israelite army captured the Midianite women and children and seized their cattle and flocks and all their wealth as plunder. – Numbers 31:9 NLT

Still driven by lust, the men saw the Midianite women as too valuable to kill and brought them back as plunder. In doing so, they poured gasoline on the fire of their own sinful desires. They actually made matters worse, and Moses reacted with disbelief and anger.

“Why have you let all the women live? These are the very ones who followed Balaam’s advice and caused the people of Israel to rebel against the LORD at Mount Peor. They are the ones who caused the plague to strike the LORD’s people.” – Numbers 31:15-16 NLT

The men of Israel were willing to live with the Midianite women in their midst, even though they posed a threat to their safety. They were the very women who had caused them to rebel against God, to begin with.

God called the people to action. He demanded that they deal with the threat to their spiritual safety, and they did. This was an act of faith. In fact, every battle the Israelites fought was an act of faith. They were not warring people. They had been slaves. For the last 40 years they had been wandering vagabonds. They had no real military training, and their battle experience was minimal. So, to form an army and fight against the Midianites was an act of faith. But God rewarded their faith.

It’s interesting to note that the preceding chapter outlined the sheer number of sheep, goats, and bulls the people were required to offer in sacrifice to God each year. Then this chapter outlines the number of sheep, cattle, and donkeys the people took as plunder from the Midianites: 675,000 sheep, 72,000 cattle, and 61,000 donkeys.

It seems that the sacrifices were all about faith. They were to offer to God their best, even though it cost them dearly. The battle was all about faith, and trusting God to lead them in an endeavor for which they had no skills or experience. But the result was the reward of God. He repaid their faithfulness with abundance. God gave them back far more in the way of livestock than they would ever have to give to Him. He was testing their obedience. He wanted to see if they would step out in faith and obey what He told them to do.

Moses knew what needed to be done and ordered the soldiers to complete their mission.

“Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.” – Numbers 31:17-18 ESV

To modern readers, this all seems so extreme and unnecessary. We tend to judge the actions of the Israelites through what we believe to be our more enlightened understanding of justice. But the land of Canaan was like the wild west, filled with disparate people groups who were all vying for control and willing to do whatever was necessary to solidify their hold on the land. And the Israelites were one nation among many. But they had been chosen by God and awarded sole possession of the land of Canaan. Yet, even more important than their possession of the land was the preservation of their purity and the demonstration of their faith in God. They were to be a set-apart people, wholly committed to Yahweh and willing to follow His commands whatever the cost. No compromise. No concessions. No subtle softening of their convictions. The battle was real and the fight of faith would be anything but easy.

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.

Death, Defilement, and Cleansing

1 Now the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, “This is the statute of the law that the Lord has commanded: Tell the people of Israel to bring you a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish, and on which a yoke has never come. And you shall give it to Eleazar the priest, and it shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered before him. And Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger, and sprinkle some of its blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times. And the heifer shall be burned in his sight. Its skin, its flesh, and its blood, with its dung, shall be burned. And the priest shall take cedarwood and hyssop and scarlet yarn, and throw them into the fire burning the heifer. Then the priest shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. But the priest shall be unclean until evening. The one who burns the heifer shall wash his clothes in water and bathe his body in water and shall be unclean until evening. And a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place. And they shall be kept for the water for impurity for the congregation of the people of Israel; it is a sin offering. 10 And the one who gathers the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening. And this shall be a perpetual statute for the people of Israel, and for the stranger who sojourns among them. Numbers 19:1-10 ESV

One of the things to keep in mind when reading these verses is the recent judgment that God had enacted upon the people of God. As a result of Korah’s rebellion, nearly 15,000 Israelites had died from a plague that God had sent among the people. This large-scale pandemic had left the survivors with a massive clean-up task. The bodies of the fallen had to be gathered and properly buried, rendering unclean all those who participated in the operation. Having come into contact with the bodies of the dead, they would have been considered defiled and in need of purification. And God had already provided clear instructions regarding the treatment of the unclean.

“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. – Numbers 5:2-4 ESV

Due to the sheer number of volunteers necessary to dispose of nearly 15,000 corpses, the Israelites would have needed a tent city to house all those who had become defiled and ceremonially unclean. So, God instituted a new command that would bring a quick resolution to the problem.

Tell the people of Israel to bring you a red heifer, a perfect animal that has no defects and has never been yoked to a plow. Give it to Eleazar the priest, and it will be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence. Eleazar will take some of its blood on his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the Tabernacle.” – Numbers 19:2-4 NLT

This was to be a corporate endeavor, with the entire congregation participating, whether they were personally unclean or not. They were to choose a red heifer that was free from defect and had never been used to pull a plow. This means it would have been a highly valuable animal in the prime of health. They were not free to bring a maimed or diseased heifer. There was no option to offer an animal well past its prime or damaged by a lifetime of hard work. This sacrifice was going to cost them something.

The whole point of this ceremony was to protect the holiness of the tabernacle. The deaths of the rebels would have ended up defiling the entire congregation. And their defilement posed a very real and present danger to the holiness of the tabernacle itself. But the death of the heifer was not meant for atonement. In other words, it’s death was not intended to cleanse from sin but to purify from defilement.

Notice the detailed instructions God provided for Aaron. First, the animal was to be slaughtered and some of its blood used as a cleansing agent.

Eleazar will take some of its blood on his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the Tabernacle. – Numbers 19:4 NLT

Eleazar was one of the four sons of Aaron and served as a priest alongside his father and brothers. His job was to supervise the entire process, ensuring that the remains of the heifer were taken outside the camp and burned. As the body was cremated, Eleazar was to add a stick of cedar, a hyssop branch, and some scarlet yarn.

“Cedar wood was not as subject to decay as most other woods and so represented the continuance of life. It was also aromatic when burnt and was probably either the common brown-berried cedar or the Phoenician juniper.[164] Hyssop stood for purification from corruption, and the priests used it to apply blood, as in the Passover ritual. Scarlet wool symbolized the strong vital energy connected with blood (cf. Lev. 14:6). All of these elements combined to signify all that strengthened life. The person in charge added these elements to the heifer ashes as the heifer was burning.” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Numbers

The leftover ashes were to be collected and kept in a specific location outside the camp. All those involved in the sacrifice of the heifer were required to go through a special purification process before they could return to the camp. And the ashes were to be maintained for future purification of any who became defiled through contact with the dead. The ashes were to be mixed with water and used as a purifying agent. The death of the innocent and unblemished heifer was required for the cleansing properties of the water to be effective. The ashes mixed with water would provide purification from defilement and restore the guilty to a state of holiness. They could once again enter into the camp and enjoy access to the tabernacle and all the rites associated with it.

God, in His grace and mercy, provided a means by which the guilty could be forgiven and the unclean could be purified from the devastating effects of sin and death.

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.

I Am Your Portion

20 And the Lord said to Aaron, “You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel.

21 “To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting, 22 so that the people of Israel do not come near the tent of meeting, lest they bear sin and die. 23 But the Levites shall do the service of the tent of meeting, and they shall bear their iniquity. It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations, and among the people of Israel they shall have no inheritance. 24 For the tithe of the people of Israel, which they present as a contribution to the Lord, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance. Therefore I have said of them that they shall have no inheritance among the people of Israel.”

25 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 26 “Moreover, you shall speak and say to the Levites, ‘When you take from the people of Israel the tithe that I have given you from them for your inheritance, then you shall present a contribution from it to the Lord, a tithe of the tithe. 27 And your contribution shall be counted to you as though it were the grain of the threshing floor, and as the fullness of the winepress. 28 So you shall also present a contribution to the Lord from all your tithes, which you receive from the people of Israel. And from it you shall give the Lord‘s contribution to Aaron the priest. 29 Out of all the gifts to you, you shall present every contribution due to the Lord; from each its best part is to be dedicated.’ 30 Therefore you shall say to them, ‘When you have offered from it the best of it, then the rest shall be counted to the Levites as produce of the threshing floor, and as produce of the winepress. 31 And you may eat it in any place, you and your households, for it is your reward in return for your service in the tent of meeting. 32 And you shall bear no sin by reason of it, when you have contributed the best of it. But you shall not profane the holy things of the people of Israel, lest you die.’” Numbers 18:20-32 ESV

The tribe of Levi had been set apart by God and assigned responsibility for caring for the tabernacle and overseeing the elaborate sacrificial system He had ordained for the nation of Israel. Of the 12 tribes of Israel, they were the only one that would not be given an allotment of land in Canaan. Rather than inheriting a designated area within the land of promise, they would be given 48 cities located within the territorial boundaries of the other tribes.

“Six of the towns you give the Levites will be cities of refuge, where a person who has accidentally killed someone can flee for safety. In addition, give them forty-two other towns. In all, forty-eight towns with the surrounding pastureland will be given to the Levites. These towns will come from the property of the people of Israel. The larger tribes will give more towns to the Levites, while the smaller tribes will give fewer. Each tribe will give property in proportion to the size of its land.” – Numbers 35:6-8 NLT

This meant that members of the tribe of Levi would be distributed among the other tribes of Israel. In a sense, as God’s “holy ”ones, they were to permeate the rest of God’s people and provide a positive spiritual influence on the nation as a whole. In return for their faithful service as priests and caretakers of the tabernacle, the Levites would enjoy the provision of God.

“You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel.

“To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting – Numbers 18:20-21 ESV

God promised to meet all their needs. But their compensation would not come in the form of agricultural commodities or livestock. They would grow no crops of their own. They would own no flocks or herds. Yet, God would provide for them through means of the sacrificial system. God would graciously share with the Levitical priests the gifts given to Him by the people.

“These are the parts the priests may claim as their share from the cattle, sheep, and goats that the people bring as offerings: the shoulder, the cheeks, and the stomach. You must also give to the priests the first share of the grain, the new wine, the olive oil, and the wool at shearing time. For the Lord your God chose the tribe of Levi out of all your tribes to minister in the Lord’s name forever.” – Deuteronomy 18:3-5 NLT

“God was the unique inheritance to the Levites. He was the focus of their service, the source of their sustenance, and the significance of their calling. Their inheritance included cities, daily food, and a constant vocation, but it did not include the same type of land inheritance given to the other tribes of Israel.” – http://www.gotquestions.org

In their position as God’s mediators, the Levites played a vital role in protecting the spiritual and physcial well-being of the people. They served as guardians of the tabernacle with the responsibility of preventing any unauthorized individual from attempting to enter the holy place or come in contact with the consecrated items contained within it.

“From now on, no Israelites except priests or Levites may approach the Tabernacle. If they come too near, they will be judged guilty and will die. Only the Levites may serve at the Tabernacle, and they will be held responsible for any offenses against it. – Numbers 18:22-23 NLT

Failure to do their job would have dire consequences for all involved. So, God stressed to Aaron the serious nature of their role. Holiness was a high priority for God and the Levites were to help the nation of Israel maintain their set-apart status by requiring obedience to His commands

In return, God would provide for all their needs. Yet, the Levites were still expected to contribute a tithe on the basis of His gracious gifts to them. In other words, they were to offer a tithe on the tithe. When the people gave their tithes to God, the Levites would receive a portion as a gracious gift from God. But God expected them to a tithe in return, as a token of their gratitude toward and complete reliance upon Him.

“You must present one-tenth of the tithe received from the Israelites as a sacred offering to the Lord. This is the Lord’s sacred portion, and you must present it to Aaron the priest. Be sure to give to the Lord the best portions of the gifts given to you.” – Numbers 18:28-29 NLT

They were instructed to treat the tithes of the people as if they were the produce they had grown, the flocks they had raised, and the fruits they had cultivated.

When you present the best part as your offering, it will be considered as though it came from your own threshing floor or winepress. – Numbers 18:30 NLT

This was intended to create a sense of total dependence upon God. He was to be their sole source of provision and by giving a tenth of what they received back to Him, they would be demonstrating their complete reliance upon His grace and mercy. But God warned them to take this command seriously and obey it religiously. There was no room for debate or differences of opinion.

You Levites and your families may eat this food anywhere you wish, for it is your compensation for serving in the Tabernacle. You will not be considered guilty for accepting the Lord’s tithes if you give the best portion to the priests. But be careful not to treat the holy gifts of the people of Israel as though they were common. If you do, you will die.” – Numbers 18:31-32 NLT

Disobedience would result in God’s disapproval and, ultimately, the death of the guilty party. If they treated the tithes of the people with disrespect, they would pay with their lives. Those gifts and offerings had been dedicated to God and were to be revered as His possessions. He was graciously sharing with them what was rightfully His. And what He really wanted them to understand was that He was to be their portion. The Hebrew word is חֵלֶק (ḥēleq), and it can be translated as “portion,” “part,” or “territory.”

While they would receive no land as their inheritance, God would serve as their territory. The benefits they would normally expect to receive from land ownership would be provided by God Himself, and He would prove to be a more than sufficient source of sustenance. Yet, His goodness would be directly tied to their obedience.

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.

Lamps, Levites, and Leadership

Now the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and say to him, When you set up the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lampstand.” And Aaron did so: he set up its lamps in front of the lampstand, as the Lord commanded Moses. And this was the workmanship of the lampstand, hammered work of gold. From its base to its flowers, it was hammered work; according to the pattern that the Lord had shown Moses, so he made the lampstand.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Take the Levites from among the people of Israel and cleanse them. Thus you shall do to them to cleanse them: sprinkle the water of purification upon them, and let them go with a razor over all their body, and wash their clothes and cleanse themselves. Then let them take a bull from the herd and its grain offering of fine flour mixed with oil, and you shall take another bull from the herd for a sin offering. And you shall bring the Levites before the tent of meeting and assemble the whole congregation of the people of Israel. 10 When you bring the Levites before the Lord, the people of Israel shall lay their hands on the Levites, 11 and Aaron shall offer the Levites before the Lord as a wave offering from the people of Israel, that they may do the service of the Lord. 12 Then the Levites shall lay their hands on the heads of the bulls, and you shall offer the one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering to the Lord to make atonement for the Levites. 13 And you shall set the Levites before Aaron and his sons, and shall offer them as a wave offering to the Lord.

14 “Thus you shall separate the Levites from among the people of Israel, and the Levites shall be mine. 15 And after that the Levites shall go in to serve at the tent of meeting, when you have cleansed them and offered them as a wave offering. 16 For they are wholly given to me from among the people of Israel. Instead of all who open the womb, the firstborn of all the people of Israel, I have taken them for myself. 17 For all the firstborn among the people of Israel are mine, both of man and of beast. On the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I consecrated them for myself, 18 and I have taken the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the people of Israel. 19 And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and his sons from among the people of Israel, to do the service for the people of Israel at the tent of meeting and to make atonement for the people of Israel, that there may be no plague among the people of Israel when the people of Israel come near the sanctuary.”

20 Thus did Moses and Aaron and all the congregation of the people of Israel to the Levites. According to all that the Lord commanded Moses concerning the Levites, the people of Israel did to them. 21 And the Levites purified themselves from sin and washed their clothes, and Aaron offered them as a wave offering before the Lord, and Aaron made atonement for them to cleanse them. 22 And after that the Levites went in to do their service in the tent of meeting before Aaron and his sons; as the Lord had commanded Moses concerning the Levites, so they did to them.

23 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 24 “This applies to the Levites: from twenty-five years old and upward they shall come to do duty in the service of the tent of meeting. 25 And from the age of fifty years they shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more. 26 They minister to their brothers in the tent of meeting by keeping guard, but they shall do no service. Thus shall you do to the Levites in assigning their duties.” Numbers 8:1-26 ESV

Chapter seven recorded the joy and generosity of the people of Israel at the dedication of the tabernacle. The entire chapter is a list of all the gifts the various tribes brought to the dedication. And Moses painstakingly records the exact nature of each tribe’s contribution, revealing that they all gave equally. This occasion was spread out over 12 days, with the various sacrifices for each tribe taking up the better part of the day on which they made their presentation. So, for almost two solid weeks, there was the giving of gifts, the burning of sacrifices, and the atonement for the sins of the people. This would have been a remarkable celebration. And it ended with Moses going into the tabernacle to meet with God, where “he heard the voice speaking to him from above the mercy seat that was on the ark of the testimony, from between the two cherubim” (Numbers 7:59 ESV).

This was a joyful celebration because God had accepted their gifts and was in their midst.  And it was followed by the dedication of the Levites. These men were the literal “stand-ins” for the people. God had chosen them to serve Him in place of the firstborn males of the people. At one point, God had commanded that all the firstborn males were to be dedicated to His service. This was due to the fact that He had spared all the firstborn Hebrew sons on the night the Death Angel passed through the land of Egypt.

But later, God chose to use the Levites as substitutes for the firstborns of Israel. The male descendants of Levi would serve in their place. So on this day, the people were commanded by God to lay their hands on the heads of the Levites, transferring the sole responsibility of serving God onto the members of this one tribe. In essence, the Levites became living sacrifices, dedicated to God’s service.

But this chapter opens with a brief, yet important command from God concerning the golden lampstand. At first glance, these verses appear out of place. They don’t seem to fit the context. But upon closer examination, they begin to make sense.

God commands Moses to have Aaron light the golden lampstand within the tabernacle. The design for this vital tabernacle fixture was given much earlier and provides important details that will help explain the inclusion of verses 1-4. God had been very specific about the lampstand’s construction.

“Make a lampstand of pure, hammered gold. Make the entire lampstand and its decorations of one piece—the base, center stem, lamp cups, buds, and petals. Make it with six branches going out from the center stem, three on each side. Each of the six branches will have three lamp cups shaped like almond blossoms, complete with buds and petals.  Craft the center stem of the lampstand with four lamp cups shaped like almond blossoms, complete with buds and petals. There will also be an almond bud beneath each pair of branches where the six branches extend from the center stem. 36 The almond buds and branches must all be of one piece with the center stem, and they must be hammered from pure gold. Then make the seven lamps for the lampstand, and set them so they reflect their light forward. – Exodus 25:31-37 NLT

Notice the emphasis on the almond buds, blossoms, and petals. There are four separate references to this particular flower. The lampstand was to resemble a budding almond tree, which was the first tree to blossom and bear fruit in the spring. So, the lampstand was to be a visual symbol of life and fruitfulness, but also of light.

With the lampstand having been lit, God then instructed Moses to set apart the Levites. An elaborate ceremony was conducted to consecrate the Levites and to remind the Israelites that this one tribe had been chosen by God to serve as their substitutes.

“Of all the people of Israel, the Levites are reserved for me. I have claimed them for myself in place of all the firstborn sons of the Israelites; I have taken the Levites as their substitutes. – Numbers 8:16 NLT

God wanted to make it perfectly clear that the Levites had been given the sole responsibility of mediating before God on behalf of the people of Israel.

“I have claimed the Levites in place of all the firstborn sons of Israel. And of all the Israelites, I have assigned the Levites to Aaron and his sons. They will serve in the Tabernacle on behalf of the Israelites and make sacrifices to purify the people so no plague will strike them when they approach the sanctuary.” – Numbers 8:18-19 NLT

As part of the ceremony of consecration, the Levites “purified themselves from sin and washed their clothes” (Numbers 8:21 NLT).

After that the Levites went into the Tabernacle to perform their duties, assisting Aaron and his sons. So they carried out all the commands that the Lord gave Moses concerning the Levites. – Numbers 8:22 NLT

The lampstand was lit, the Levites were cleansed, and their ministry in the tabernacle on behalf of the people began. But fast-forward to chapter 16 and there you will find recorded a rather dark moment in Israel’s history. It took place as they continued their journey from Egypt to Canaan and it involved a significant rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. A small group of individuals, jealous of the power wielded by Moses and his brother, decided to stage a coup. Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and On “incited a rebellion against Moses, along with 250 other leaders of the community, all prominent members of the assembly” (Numbers 16:3 NLT).

Their argument was that Moses and Aaron were nothing special because the whole nation had been set apart by God.

“You have gone too far! The whole community of Israel has been set apart by the Lord, and he is with all of us. What right do you have to act as though you are greater than the rest of the Lord’s people?” – Numbers 16:3 NLT

Moses responded to their demand for equality and equity with a challenge.

“Tomorrow morning the Lord will show us who belongs to him and who is holy. The Lord will allow only those whom he selects to enter his own presence. – Numbers 16:5 NLT

Korah and his companions were declaring themselves to be on equal standing with Moses and Aaron. They felt like they were being slighted and treated like second-class citizens. But their complaints were ill-founded and unwise. They were actually questioning the will of God. And what makes this scene so fascinating is that Korah was a Levite. In fact, Moses points out this very fact when he states, “Korah, you and all your followers must prepare your incense burners. Light fires in them tomorrow, and burn incense before the Lord. Then we will see whom the Lord chooses as his holy one. You Levites are the ones who have gone too far!” (Numbers 16:6-7 NLT).

It seems that Korah and his cohorts were dissatisfied with their God-ordained role as servants in the tabernacle. They wanted power. They were looking for something more prestigious and worthy of honor. In fact, they wanted to be priests, just like Aaron and his sons. So, Moses confronted them for the insubordination that had led them to stage an attempted insurrection.

“Now listen, you Levites! Does it seem insignificant to you that the God of Israel has chosen you from among all the community of Israel to be near him so you can serve in the Lord’s Tabernacle and stand before the people to minister to them? Korah, he has already given this special ministry to you and your fellow Levites. Are you now demanding the priesthood as well? The Lord is the one you and your followers are really revolting against! For who is Aaron that you are complaining about him?” – Numbers 16:8-11 NLT

But despite Moses’ words, Korah and his companions remained unrepentant. They “stirred up the entire community against Moses and Aaron, and they all gathered at the Tabernacle entrance” (Numbers 16:19 NLT).

At this point in the story, the glory of God appeared before the people and the Almighty declared His intent to destroy the entire nation for its rebellion.

“Get away from all these people so that I may instantly destroy them!” – Numbers 16:21 NLT

But Moses and Aaron interceded on behalf of the people and begged God to spare them.

“O God,” they pleaded, “you are the God who gives breath to all creatures. Must you be angry with all the people when only one man sins?” – Numbers 16:22 NLT

As a result, God determined to wipe out the families of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.

The earth opened its mouth and swallowed the men, along with their households and all their followers who were standing with them, and everything they owned. So they went down alive into the grave, along with all their belongings. The earth closed over them, and they all vanished from among the people of Israel. – Numbers 16:32-33 NLT

But the story doesn’t end there. Even after this tragic event, the people continued to rebel against the leadership of Moses and Aaron.

But the very next morning the whole community of Israel began muttering again against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You have killed the Lord’s people!” – Numbers 16:41 NLT

In response to their continued insolence and rebellion, God sent a plague that left 14,700 people dead. Had not Aaron interceded, purifying the people with incense, even more people would have died.

The next thing God commanded Moses to do was to have each tribe bring a staff with the name of their tribe inscribed on it. They were to place these staffs inside the tabernacle in front of the Ark of the Covenant. God ordained this to be a final affirmation of leadership.

“Buds will sprout on the staff belonging to the man I choose. Then I will finally put an end to the people’s murmuring and complaining against you.” – Numbers 17:5 NLT

The next day, when Moses entered the tabernacle, “he found that Aaron’s staff, representing the tribe of Levi, had sprouted, budded, blossomed, and produced ripe almonds!” (Numbers 17:8 NLT).

God had settled the debate once and for all. He had reconfirmed the priestly role of Aaron and his sons. He had dramatically reminded the Levites of their status as His servants. And He had warned all the people of their need to submit to His divine will. Everyone had a part to play. No one was to covet the role of another. There was to be no disunity or jealousy. Every priest, Levite, Nazirite, and citizen of the nation of Israel was expected to live in submission to the will of God – no questions asked, no complaints registered.

And even the Levites were informed that the length of their service would only last 25 years. Once their service was complete, they were to relinquish their duties to another. God’s will and the holiness of God’s people was to be the highest priority of all involved.

“Chapter 8 deals with two issues: lamps and Levites. Both the proper setting of the lamps and the distinction of the Levites from the community are further elements in the purification of the nation in preparation for the holy task God had prepared for her. . . . May one suggest that as the lamps were to be properly focused on the bread of the Presence, so the Levites were to have their proper stance within the community as well?” – Ronald B. Allen, “Numbers.” In Genesis—Numbers. Vol. 2 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary

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.

Shepherd My Sheep

22 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 23 “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them,

24 The Lord bless you and keep you;
25 the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
26 the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

27 “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” Numbers 6:22-27 ESV

At this point, God switches His focus back to Aaron and his sons, whom He had appointed to serve as priests. Aaron was the older brother of Moses (Exodus7:7) and had served at his sibling’s side ever since the days when God commissioned them to deliver the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt. Moses was the God-appointed deliverer but Aaron was to serve as his brother’s mouthpiece.

“Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well. Behold, he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth, and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth and will teach you both what to do. He shall speak for you to the people, and he shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him. – Exodus 4:14-16 ESV

In those days, Moses had been living in the land of Midian, having left Egypt out of fear for his life. In an attempt to protect a Jewish slave from mistreatment by an Egyptian, Moses inadvertently killed the oppressor and was forced to run for his life. It was while he was in Midian that he received God’s call to deliver the people of Israel. And, at the same time, Aaron, who was still living in Egypt, received his own divine commission to come to his brother’s aid.

The Lord said to Aaron, “Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.” So he went and met him at the mountain of God and kissed him. And Moses told Aaron all the words of the Lord with which he had sent him to speak, and all the signs that he had commanded him to do. Then Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the people of Israel. Aaron spoke all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses and did the signs in the sight of the people. And the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshiped. – Exodus 4:27-31 ESV

Later in the book of Genesis, Moses records the point at which God set apart Aaron and his sons to serve as priests. This was long after the people of Israel had made their miraculous escape from slavery in Egypt.

“Call for your brother, Aaron, and his sons, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. Set them apart from the rest of the people of Israel so they may minister to me and be my priests. – Exodus 28:1 NLT

These men were given the privilege and responsibility of serving as God’s mediators and ministers. Their role was defined by God and could not be performed by anyone else in the Israelite community. As members of the tribe of Levi, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar were doubly set apart. They were part of the Levitical cast whom God had chosen to serve in the place of all the firstborn males of Israel, but they were also the clan that would serve as priests within the tabernacle of God. And God ordered Moses to perform an elaborate ceremony that would consecrate them for their new role as His servants.

“Present Aaron and his sons at the entrance of the Tabernacle, and wash them with water. Dress Aaron in his priestly garments—the tunic, the robe worn with the ephod, the ephod itself, and the chestpiece. Then wrap the decorative sash of the ephod around him. Place the turban on his head, and fasten the sacred medallion to the turban. Then anoint him by pouring the anointing oil over his head. Next present his sons, and dress them in their tunics. Wrap the sashes around the waists of Aaron and his sons, and put their special head coverings on them. Then the right to the priesthood will be theirs by law forever. In this way, you will ordain Aaron and his sons.” – Exodus 29:4-9 NLT

God went on to tell Moses that Aaron and his sons would serve as priests for perpetuity. Unlike a Nazirite, whose service to God was voluntary and temporary, the Aaronic priesthood came with a mandatory and lifelong commitment.

“Yes, I will consecrate the Tabernacle and the altar, and I will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve me as priests. Then I will live among the people of Israel and be their God, and they will know that I am the Lord their God. I am the one who brought them out of the land of Egypt so that I could live among them. I am the Lord their God.” – Exodus 29:44-46 NLT

As priests, their role was essential in maintaining the holiness of God’s people. One of their primary responsibilities was to offer sacrifices to God in the tabernacle, ensuring that the sins of the people were atoned for so that God’s presence would remain within their midst.

“Whereas Nazirites generally undertook their vows for a short period, the priests were always there pronouncing this blessing at the close of the daily morning service in the temple and later in the synagogues.” – Gordon J. Wenham, “Aaron’s Rod (Numbers 17:16-28).” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 93:2 (1981):280-81.

After providing the requirements concerning the Nazirite vow of service, God ordered Aaron and his sons to pronounce a blessing on the people of Israel. This three-fold blessing was not intended to be a one-and-done event. In prescribing the exact wording of the blessing, God was giving Aaron and his sons an outline for determining all future blessings. God was revealing His heart for the people of Israel and was delegating to His priests the authority to speak on His behalf.

“Whenever Aaron and his sons bless the people of Israel in my name, I myself will bless them.” – Numbers 6:27 NLT

These men were to love the people under their care in the same way that God did. They were to be servant-shepherds, calling down the blessings of God upon the flock over which He had given them responsibility. They were to view their commission as a gift from God and a high and holy calling.

“But only you and your sons shall attend to your priesthood for everything concerning the altar and what is inside the veil, and you are to perform that service. I am giving you the work of the priesthood as a gift…” – Numbers 18:7 BSB

The apostle Peter shared similar words with the elders who served the congregation to whom he wrote.

Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. And when the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of never-ending glory and honor.– 1 Peter 5:2-4 NLT

God gave His priests the authority to “bless” His sheep. They were ordered to pronounce a divinely inspired promise of future blessing upon a people who were preparing to enter the land of Canaan.

“May the Lord bless you
    and protect you.
May the Lord smile on you
    and be gracious to you.
May the Lord show you his favor
    and give you his peace.” – Numbers 6:24-26 NLT

“This blessing, like the preceding Nazirite legislation, deals with the purification of Israel. As the nation prepared to move out toward the Promised Land, God gave this benediction to the priests to offer for the sanctification of the people. God’s will was to bless all His people, not just the Nazirites. The priests were the mediators of this blessing from God to the Israelites.” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Numbers

For the people of Israel to enjoy God’s protection, grace, favor, and peace, they would need to remain holy and pure. And that would only happen if the priests carried out their God-ordained assignment to shepherd the people well. By dictating the content of the blessing, God was providing His undershepherds with a glimpse into His heart. The prophet Isaiah painted a vivid picture of Great Shepherd’s gentle and caring demeanor.

He tends His flock like a shepherd; He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart. He gently leads the nursing ewes. – Isaiah 40:11 BSB

And Aaron and his sons were to “bless” the people in the same way. Words would not be enough. Saying it would be insufficient. In a way, God was demanding that His priests be the conduits through which His protection, grace, favor, and peace flowed. And if they did their job faithfully and rightly, the presence of God would remain within the camp of Israel, and the people of God would be blessed. But if they failed, the people would suffer.

Years later, long after the people of Israel had conquered and populated the land of Canaan, the priests of Israel would fail to do their jobs and bring down His wrath rather than His blessing. And He would indict them for their dereliction of duty.

“The shepherds of my people have lost their senses. They no longer seek wisdom from the LORD. Therefore, they fail completely, and their flocks are scattered.” – Jeremiah 10:21 NLT

“What sorrow awaits the leaders of my people—the shepherds of my sheep—for they have destroyed and scattered the very ones they were expected to care for…” – Jeremiah 23:1 NLT

And the prophet Ezekiel provides a stinging rebuke from God against the derelict shepherds of Israel.

“Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.” – Ezekiel 34:2-6 ESV

Rather than providing protection, grace, favor, or peace, God’s shepherds had fleeced the flock of God. They had abused, used, and abandoned God’s people, bringing down curses rather than blessings. And God held them responsible.

So, when God ordered Aaron and his sons to bless the people, He was expecting far more than just lip service. He was demanding actions in keeping with the words.

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.

Separated to God

1 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When either a man or a woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to separate himself to the Lord, he shall separate himself from wine and strong drink. He shall drink no vinegar made from wine or strong drink and shall not drink any juice of grapes or eat grapes, fresh or dried. All the days of his separation he shall eat nothing that is produced by the grapevine, not even the seeds or the skins.

“All the days of his vow of separation, no razor shall touch his head. Until the time is completed for which he separates himself to the Lord, he shall be holy. He shall let the locks of hair of his head grow long.

“All the days that he separates himself to the Lord he shall not go near a dead body. Not even for his father or for his mother, for brother or sister, if they die, shall he make himself unclean, because his separation to God is on his head. All the days of his separation he is holy to the Lord.

“And if any man dies very suddenly beside him and he defiles his consecrated head, then he shall shave his head on the day of his cleansing; on the seventh day he shall shave it. 10 On the eighth day he shall bring two turtledoves or two pigeons to the priest to the entrance of the tent of meeting, 11 and the priest shall offer one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering, and make atonement for him, because he sinned by reason of the dead body. And he shall consecrate his head that same day 12 and separate himself to the Lord for the days of his separation and bring a male lamb a year old for a guilt offering. But the previous period shall be void, because his separation was defiled.

13 “And this is the law for the Nazirite, when the time of his separation has been completed: he shall be brought to the entrance of the tent of meeting, 14 and he shall bring his gift to the Lord, one male lamb a year old without blemish for a burnt offering, and one ewe lamb a year old without blemish as a sin offering, and one ram without blemish as a peace offering, 15 and a basket of unleavened bread, loaves of fine flour mixed with oil, and unleavened wafers smeared with oil, and their grain offering and their drink offerings. 16 And the priest shall bring them before the Lord and offer his sin offering and his burnt offering, 17 and he shall offer the ram as a sacrifice of peace offering to the Lord, with the basket of unleavened bread. The priest shall offer also its grain offering and its drink offering. 18 And the Nazirite shall shave his consecrated head at the entrance of the tent of meeting and shall take the hair from his consecrated head and put it on the fire that is under the sacrifice of the peace offering. 19 And the priest shall take the shoulder of the ram, when it is boiled, and one unleavened loaf out of the basket and one unleavened wafer, and shall put them on the hands of the Nazirite, after he has shaved the hair of his consecration, 20 and the priest shall wave them for a wave offering before the Lord. They are a holy portion for the priest, together with the breast that is waved and the thigh that is contributed. And after that the Nazirite may drink wine.

21 “This is the law of the Nazirite. But if he vows an offering to the Lord above his Nazirite vow, as he can afford, in exact accordance with the vow that he takes, then he shall do in addition to the law of the Nazirite.” Numbers 6:1-21 ESV

God had set apart Aaron and his sons to serve as priests. The male members of the tribe of Levi had been set apart to serve as assistants to the priests and as caretakers of the tabernacle. But in Numbers 6, we read of God’s provision for individual volunteerism. Any member of the faith community could choose to offer themselves in service to God by taking what was called the Nazirite Vow.

The Hebrew word nāzîr simply means “consecrated or devoted one.” These individuals took an oath of fealty to God, setting themselves apart as His servants. This period of consecrated service was usually for a specific length of time but, in some cases, it could last a lifetime. This commitment was not to be entered into lightly because they were “setting themselves apart to the Lord in a special way” (Numbers 6:2 NLT). God took their vow seriously and expected them to keep their oath at all costs.

To emphasize the gravity of taking the Nazirite vow, God attached strict requirements that were intended to discourage the uncommitted. To dedicate oneself to God was a serious matter and it required sober introspection. While a certain amount of prestige could come from making the commitment to dedicate yourself to the service of God, it was not about improving one’s social standing. Taking the vow was easy. Fulfilling it was another matter altogether. So God outlined the cost of commitment associated with becoming a Nazirite. He wanted everyone to carefully consider whether they were willing to accept the severe standards that came with the vow.

God prescribed clear requirements for anyone wishing to dedicate themselves to His service. This consecration came with outward commitments that were designed to differentiate a Nazirite from the rest of the faith community. Not only were they set apart as God’s servants, but they were also to stand out from the crowd. First of all, they were prohibited from drinking wine.

“…they must give up wine and other alcoholic drinks. They must not use vinegar made from wine or from other alcoholic drinks, they must not drink fresh grape juice, and they must not eat grapes or raisins.” – Numbers 6:3 NLT

In a society where wine was a staple at every meal and a ubiquitous part of daily life, this would have proven to be a difficult concession to make. This requirement of abstinence was not because God considered the consumption of wine to be sinful, but because there was always the risk of drunkenness. The Scriptures are filled with stories of individuals who allowed alcohol to blur their decision-making and cause them to violate God’s will. The book of Genesis describes how Noah “drank some wine he had made, and he became drunk and lay naked inside his tent” (Genesis 9:21 NLT). God considered Noah to be “a righteous man, blameless in his generation” (Genesis 6:9 ESV), but this godly man allowed alcohol to dull his senses and that decision had serious and long-lasting consequences (Genesis 9:18-25).

The apostle Peter referred to Lot as “a righteous man” (2 Peter 2:7), yet the book of Genesis describes how Lot’s daughters got him drunk with wine and then proceeded to have sex with him.

“There are no men left anywhere in this entire area, so we can’t get married like everyone else. And our father will soon be too old to have children. Come, let’s get him drunk with wine, and then we will have sex with him. That way we will preserve our family line through our father.” – Genesis 19:31-32 NLT

The end result of these two incestuous encounters was the birth of two sons who would later become the fathers of the Moabites and Ammonites, two nations that would become the sworn enemies of Israel.

The fruit of the vine was intended to be a sign of God’s blessing but, like all of God’s blessings, it could be abused and misused. So, the Nazirites were strictly prohibited from consuming alcohol for as long as they remained in service to God.

Secondly, all Nazirites were prohibited from cutting their hair.

“They must never cut their hair throughout the time of their vow, for they are holy and set apart to the Lord. Until the time of their vow has been fulfilled, they must let their hair grow long. – Numbers 6:5 NLT

The length of their hair was intended to act as a sign or symbol of their set-apart status. There is no explanation given for this particular prohibition. Both men and women were required to allow their hair to grow for as long as they remained in service to God. Perhaps it was intended as a demonstration of their willingness to place their personal preferences on hold while they were in God’s service. Any concern they had for their outward appearance was to take a back seat to their commitment to God’s will. It’s interesting to note that Samson, one of the judges of Israel and a Nazirite, had come to the conclusion that his long hair was the source of his superhuman strength.

“A razor has never come upon my head, for I have been a Nazirite to God from my mother’s womb. If my head is shaved, then my strength will leave me, and I shall become weak and be like any other man.” – Judges 16:17 ESV

Samson’s long hair had been intended to serve as a sign of his commitment to God, not a source of his strength. He had been set apart for God’s service but lived his life according to his own selfish standards. He was driven by his passions and given to living a life of excess. And when Samson’s hair was cut by Delilah, he lost his strength, not because he had lost his hair but because he had been abandoned by God.

…he didn’t realize the Lord had left him. So the Philistines captured him and gouged out his eyes. They took him to Gaza, where he was bound with bronze chains and forced to grind grain in the prison. – Judges 16:20-21 NLT

Samson lost his strength because he had long ago abandoned his commitment to God. He had repeatedly violated his vow to God and his shaved head was a sign that God no longer considered Samson to be set apart for His service. As the text clearly states, “the hair on their head is the symbol of their separation to God” (Numbers 6:7 NLT).

The third requirement had to do with defilement from personal contact with the dead. As a servant of God, the Nazirite was expected to remain ceremonially pure. Any physical contact with a human corpse would result in immediate defilement and require purification. What is interesting to note is how God highlights the role of the hair in the defilement process.

“If someone falls dead beside them, the hair they have dedicated will be defiled. They must wait for seven days and then shave their heads. Then they will be cleansed from their defilement. – Numbers 6:9 NLT

The longer length of the hair would present a problem if someone came in close proximity to a dead body. While they might refrain from touching the corpse with their hands, their hair could easily come into contact with the diseased, rendering the Nazirite ceremonially unclean. The only remedy was to shave their heads and then offer a sacrifice at the tabernacle. Once purified, he or she was free to complete their vow to God. The whole point was that God expected each Nazirite to maintain their holiness as long as they were in His service.

“All the days of his separation he is holy to the Lord.” – Numbers 6:8 ESV

When each individual had completed the terms of their vow, there was a ceremony conducted that officially released them from their commitment to God. It was called “the law of the Nazirite” and required each individual to shave their head and then burn the hair on the brazen altar as part of a sacrifice to God. This elaborate ritual brought the Nazirite’s service commitment to a close and allowed them to return to their former life.

But as long as the Nazirite’s vow was in place, they were expected to keep their commitment to God without fail.

And they must be careful to do whatever they vowed when they set themselves apart as Nazirites.” – Numbers 6:21 NLT

While the Nazirite vow no longer exists or applies, there is a similar calling issued to every child of God today. The apostle Paul outlines this non-negotiable commitment in his letter to the believers in Rome and it still calls God’s people to maintain their commitment to moral purity and holiness – at all times and at all costs.

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. – Romans 12:1-2 NLT

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.

Holiness Comes With a Price

11 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 12 “Speak to the people of Israel, If any man’s wife goes astray and breaks faith with him, 13 if a man lies with her sexually, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and she is undetected though she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her, since she was not taken in the act, 14 and if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife who has defiled herself, or if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife, though she has not defiled herself, 15 then the man shall bring his wife to the priest and bring the offering required of her, a tenth of an ephah of barley flour. He shall pour no oil on it and put no frankincense on it, for it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of remembrance, bringing iniquity to remembrance.

16 “And the priest shall bring her near and set her before the Lord. 17 And the priest shall take holy water in an earthenware vessel and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. 18 And the priest shall set the woman before the Lord and unbind the hair of the woman’s head and place in her hands the grain offering of remembrance, which is the grain offering of jealousy. And in his hand the priest shall have the water of bitterness that brings the curse. 19 Then the priest shall make her take an oath, saying, ‘If no man has lain with you, and if you have not turned aside to uncleanness while you were under your husband’s authority, be free from this water of bitterness that brings the curse. 20 But if you have gone astray, though you are under your husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself, and some man other than your husband has lain with you, 21 then’ (let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse, and say to the woman) ‘the Lord make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the Lord makes your thigh fall away and your body swell. 22 May this water that brings the curse pass into your bowels and make your womb swell and your thigh fall away.’ And the woman shall say, ‘Amen, Amen.’

23 “Then the priest shall write these curses in a book and wash them off into the water of bitterness. 24 And he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain. 25 And the priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy out of the woman’s hand and 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 portion, and burn it on the altar, and afterward shall make the woman drink the water. 27 And when he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has broken faith with her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away, and the woman shall become a curse among her people. 28 But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be free and shall conceive children.

29 “This is the law in cases of jealousy, when a wife, though under her husband’s authority, goes astray and defiles herself, 30 or when the spirit of jealousy comes over a man and he is jealous of his wife. Then he shall set the woman before the Lord, and the priest shall carry out for her all this law. 31 The man shall be free from iniquity, but the woman shall bear her iniquity.” Numbers 5:11-31 ESV

It was literally impossible for the Israelites to maintain their holiness and purity before God. Sin and sickness, both inevitable outcomes of living in a fallen world, were going to be a constant part of their lives. And because God dwelt in their midst, the ramifications of their sinfulness and sickness were serious. Disease and disobedience both separated the people from God. The very existence of disease was a direct result of sin’s entrance into the world.

Ultimately, disease and disobedience both lead to death. God gave Moses strict instructions about what to do with those who found themselves suffering from potentially contagious diseases; they were to be removed from the camp. This was not an indication that their illness was due to a specific sin they had committed, but a recognition that sickness was the inevitable byproduct of sin’s presence in the world. God expected His people to remain pure, both spiritually and physically, if they wanted to enter into His presence. But as always, God provided a means by which they could be restored to a right relationship with Him, in spite of sickness or sin.

In today’s passage, we see that God even expected the marriages of His people to be pure and above reproach. To our modern sensibilities, these verses contain some rather bizarre and disturbing counsel for dealing with marital unfaithfulness. But while it may be easy to fixate on the almost cultic nature of God’s instructions, it’s important that we not miss the motivation behind them.

God provides Moses with detailed instructions for determining whether a man’s wife was guilty of adultery. It’s interesting to note that in the “test” God provided, the hidden sin of the woman, when revealed, would result in sickness. In this case, her sickness would be proof of her sin. And it’s no coincidence that the resulting sickness attacked the very organs that had been used to commit the sin in the first place. There is much about this passage that is difficult to understand, but it is clear that God was dealing with sin among His people in a powerful and pronounced way. This “test,” when witnessed by others, would prove to be an effective deterrent to further adultery in the camp.

In the closing part of chapter 6, God gives Moses a blessing to pronounce over the people.

The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. – Numbers 6:24-26 ESV

This simple, yet profound blessing reminds us that, ultimately, it was God’s desire to bless His people. And one of the greatest blessings God could bestow on the people of Israel was the guarantee of His abiding presence. But for God to remain within their midst, He had to deal justly and firmly with the sins committed by them. It was up to God to provide them with peace when their repeated sins and inevitable exposures to disease would leave them alienated from Him.

God alone is the instigator, arbiter, and maintainer of the relationship He has with mankind. It is He who seeks us and not the other way around. Left to our own devices, man will always seek a god of his own choosing. And man will tend to make the relationship with his god based on his own performance and acts of self-righteousness.

Humanity has always lived under the delusion that life can be lived apart from God. Even those who long for God, believe that He is little more than an objective to be pursued, a giver of gifts whose favor must be earned. They make God the means rather than the end. He becomes little more than a resource to get what they really want: peace, prosperity, contentment, happiness, fulfillment, and significance. This is why men make gods out of anything that even remotely seems to promise those things. But we can’t earn favor with God. And we can’t turn God into some kind of divine lottery ticket that we hope will grant us our heart’s wildest desires.

It was impossible for the people of Israel to live up to God’s exacting standards. They would and did continually fail. But God had provided a means of atoning for their inevitable sins and dealing with the inescapable reality of sickness. It is interesting to think about the fact that sickness was hard to hide. Skin disorders and diseases would inevitably reveal themselves to the rest of the faith community. And as soon as the sickness became apparent, it had to be dealt with. But sin can remain hidden for a long time, unobserved, and invisible to the faith community. Sin was like cancer that was undetected among the people of God, slowly spreading and infecting the body over time.

The passage in Numbers 6 contains some rather disturbing and difficult-to-understand directives for dealing with marital unfaithfulness. What God commands almost sounds like a form of witchcraft. It involves the mixing of strange potions and the incantation of curses. There are offerings made and mystical symptoms to be observed.

The whole thing comes across as something the pagan nations might practice. But this was the will of God for His people. It was a divinely ordained process for exposing sin in a marriage that could easily infect the entire faith community.

“Marital deceit is a matter of such seriousness that the truth must be discovered. It is harmful to the sanctity of the community at large, and destructive of one of the bases of community life.” – Philip J. Budd, Numbers

God takes sin seriously and He expected His children to do the same. There was no place for sinful activity among the people of God. But He knew it would inevitably take place. That is why He established strict guidelines for exposing sin so that the people might continue to enjoy His abiding presence and power in their midst.

“. . . this particular case law is included here because it gives another illustration of God’s personal involvement in the restitution for the sin of the nation. Within God’s covenant with Israel, there could be no hidden sin among God’s people nor any hidden suspicion of sin.

“The law of jealousy shows that through the role of the priest, God was actively at work in the nation and that no sin of any sort could be tolerated among God’s holy people.” – John H. Sailhamer, “The Mosaic Law and the Theology of the Pentateuch.” Westminster Theological Journal 53 (Fall 1991):241-61.

Sin carries a cost. It promises joy and fulfillment but rarely delivers. And hidden sin is one of the most egregious and dangerous. It may lie undetected but its influence continues to spread throughout the body of Christ. We may fool all those around us, but our all-knowing, all-seeing God cannot be deceived or duped. And because He cares for His people, He will see that sin is exposed and expunged. Out of His deep desire to bless His children, God lovingly purifies their lives from the damaging effects of sin.

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.

His Will, Not Mine

11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. James 4:11-17 ESV

James had strong words for those who claimed to be Christ-followers but failed to live in obedience to God’s commands. That kind of behavior was unacceptable because saving faith always results in sanctification, the Spirit-empowered transformation of the believer into the likeness of Christ. The apostle Paul’s informed the believers in Thessalonica of his ongoing prayer for them:

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Thessalonians 5:23

The New Living Translation words Paul’s request this way: “Now may the God of peace make you holy in every way…”

Both James and Paul had high expectations for the believers to whom they each ministered. There was no room for spiritual apathy or complacency. God’s gift of salvation was not intended to be viewed as a ticket that gained the holder entrance into some future state of glorification. While eternal life is the final reward for all those who place their faith in Christ, there is also the present reality of our ongoing transformation into the image of Christ.

Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth, who were primarily Gentiles, and reminded them that there had been a time when their hearts were incapable of seeing the truth. It was as if they had a veil over their eyes that prevented them from recognizing the gift being offered to them in Christ. Their condition had been just like that of the Jews in the days of Moses. He had delivered to them God’s law but they had been unable to understand or obey it.

…the people’s minds were hardened, and to this day whenever the old covenant is being read, the same veil covers their minds so they cannot understand the truth. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ. Yes, even today when they read Moses’ writings, their hearts are covered with that veil, and they do not understand. – 2 Corinthians 3:14-15 NLT

Little had changed over the centuries. Even Paul, a Jew himself, recognized that his people still lived in a state of spiritual darkness, unable to see or receive the truth concerning Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. Then he reminds the Corinthians believers that they had come to faith in Christ because the Holy Spirit had removed the veil of ignorance and apathy.

But whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. – 2 Corinthians 3:16-18 NLT

Not only had they experienced freedom from sin and condemnation, but they had begun the process of transformation into the likeness of Christ. And all those who are being conformed to His image should reflect His character. That is the whole point behind James’ letter. He is demanding that his readers embrace the life of holiness to which they had been called by God. They were free in Christ, but they were not free to live as they pleased. Their behavior was to be in keeping with the Word of God. Obedience to God’s law was non-optional. And he made that point perfectly clear.

Don’t speak evil against each other, dear brothers and sisters. If you criticize and judge each other, then you are criticizing and judging God’s law. – James 4:11 NLT

And James appears to have the Mosaic Law in mind. He is calling believers to live in keeping with the commands of God as found in the book of Leviticus.

“Do not twist justice in legal matters by favoring the poor or being partial to the rich and powerful. Always judge people fairly.

“Do not spread slanderous gossip among your people.

“Do not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is threatened. I am the Lord.

“Do not nurse hatred in your heart for any of your relatives. Confront people directly so you will not be held guilty for their sin.

“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.

“You must obey all my decrees.” – Leviticus 19:15-19 NLT

While these commands had been given by God to the people of Israel as they made their way from Egypt to the promised land, James insists that they were still relevant and required for his 1st-Century audience. God’s will regarding the interpersonal interactions between His people remained unchanged. And James warns his readers against cherry-picking which laws they wanted to obey.

…your job is to obey the law, not to judge whether it applies to you. – James 4:11 NLT

In order for them to practice partiality and justify their fits of anger against one another, they were having to play fast and loose with God’s law. If nothing else, they were violating the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And they were disobeying the command of Christ.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” – Jonn 13:34 ESV

These people had made a habit out of judging one another. They were hyper-critical and harsh in their treatment of one another. But James warns them:

God alone, who gave the law, is the Judge. He alone has the power to save or to destroy. So what right do you have to judge your neighbor? – James 4:12 NLT

They were guilty of violating every command found in Leviticus 19:15-19. It was as if they had chosen to put back on the veil that the Spirit had removed. They were willingly closing their eyes to the truth of God’s Word and living in disobedience to His will for them.

In a sense, they were acting as if they were large and in charge. They had decided that they wanted to be the masters of their own fates and the captains of their own souls. And this shared sense of autonomy and self-determination was doing great damage to the body of Christ. And James warns them against trying to play god. Their desire to control their own fates was not only misguided but impossible. And James points out just how ludicrous their attempt at self-sovereignty really was.

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. – James 4:13-14 NLT

Their power was limited and their ability to predict the future was laughable. While they could make grandiose plans, they had no idea what tomorrow would bring. In fact, they had no guarantee they would live long enough to see the next day. So, James provides them with an alternative perspective.

What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you are boasting about your own pretentious plans, and all such boasting is evil. – James 4:15-16 NLT

This all points back to the issue of holiness. As followers of Christ, they were to recognize their new status as children of God and citizens of the Kingdom. They were no longer of this world. They belonged to God and were expected to live according to His will and not their own. They could make plans, but they were to hold them loosely and always remember that those plans must be in keeping with God’s will.

The apostle Paul constantly encouraged believers to recognize their new identity in Christ.

Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NLT

And Paul made it clear that this set-apart status as God’s temple applied to the corporate community of faith, not just the individual believer.

Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? – 1 Corinthians 3:16 NLT

The temple of God in Jerusalem had been set apart for His use. It was intended to be His earthly dwelling place. And it was the responsibility of the priests to maintain the holiness and purity of the temple through constant obedience to God’s laws. A believer’s body belongs to God. It is the temple or dwelling place of the Spirit of God. And God expects us to keep His house pure and set apart for His use. The same thing is true regarding the body of Christ, the church. According to Paul, it too is the temple of God and its holiness should be diligently maintained. That’s why James pleads, “Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world” (James 4:8 NLT).

They needed to do some serious house cleaning. They had allowed the temple of God to become impure and uninhabitable. Unconfessed sin had made God’s dwelling place unacceptable. And their individual battles with sin had done serious damage to the faith community. So, James closes out this chapter with a call to obedience.

Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it. – James 4:17 NLT

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.