Numbers. Chapter five. Israel is about to set off on March and they are given three case studies to apply to help them maintain their order as we look through the reading of God’s word. If you would join me in prayer. Heavenly Father, as we come before you this day, as we meet in your presence, we ask that you would open our ears to hear your voice, to open our hearts to love you more and more, to open our souls to receive your Word in fullness.
That your son Jesus, the word made flesh, will be glorified and honored in our lives. For it’s in his name that we do pray. Amen. Beginning. In verse one of chapter five, the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp everyone who’s lepros or has a discharge and everyone who is unclean through contact with the dead 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. The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, speak to the people of Israel. When a man or a woman commits any of the sins that people commit by breaking faith with the Lord and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the sin that he has committed and he shall make full restitution for his wrong, adding a fifth to it and giving it to him to whom he did the wrong. The word of the Lord going to jump us back 20 years.
20 years ago, a restaurant in North Carolina renamed French Fries to Freedom Fries. A congressman followed suit and he had the name changed on the menus in the congressional cafeterias. All of this was due to France’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq. It was a political stunt to give France a little needling. Freedom Fries became a buzzword for a while, and depending on your age, you’re like, yeah, I remember that and other people that sounds really stupid, such as the way those things go.
Freedom Fries. If 100 years from now, someone were to find a restaurant menu from one of these locations and to look at it without the historical context, it would really be puzzling.
Power of freedom. Fries. Different from French Fries. You could imagine people arguing about some long lost recipe or different eating habits of different regions. PBS having a special on why Freedom Fries never existed.
And if it was 1000 years later, then you would have people talking about how that word freedom, that’s an archaic English word for sweet potatoes or cooking style of boiling turnips or something. And that’s what happens without the context. When you and I are looking at the Bible, we need to keep that in mind, that what is written is written in historical context. Israel’s laws and tradition reflected their time period. Some of them mirrored those things very closely and others were intentionally responses other than their time period to separate them from the nations.
Ancient practices that seem so strange to us, it made sense to them. And often the insights that we have about ancient Near Eastern culture can shed some light on puzzling items in the Bible. Now, some people get nervous when they hear about things like this, as if it makes God’s Word less special. By reflecting the time and the place in which it was written, god reveals Himself to real people in real human history. The Bible is not a pretend book, nor is it completely foreign to us.
As if it just sort of dropped out of heaven, completely dissociated from human history. And at times we’re challenged with connecting some of this forgotten history to what we are reading now. Being superficial about it doesn’t help. There are some who their way of dealing with this is just simply ignoring large parts of the Bible they don’t understand. We’re called though, to have the knowledge of God’s Word in order for us to connect the dots, in order for us to live our lives before Him with understanding and comprehension.
And in front of us in chapter five are three areas of sin and defilement that matter to living in community. How can a holy God be present with a polluted people? How can a polluted people live together and get along messy lives trying to maintain order as they move towards the new life that has been promised to them on our own, our lives move towards disorder and disintegration. We need the Lord to keep us together. We need the Lord to provide a way for us to be present with Him.
So, a quick review of where we are. The first four chapters we see. Israel is about to set out from Mount Sinai towards the land of Canaan. And a census was taken of all the tribes with males over 20 years in order to give a headcount for the army. And then the camp is arranged around the Tabernacle according to their tribes and the order of their marching.
Fourth is also established. The Levi’s and the priests are assigned their duties and they act as it were, as a religious safety team for the rest of Israel. And now we get these three case studies that speak of disruption of community. The first case study is about ritual purity, and the other two about moral ethics. They can seem rather arbitrary for us if we don’t keep in mind this larger context.
So first, looking at ceremonial purity, the Lord spoke to Moses saying command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp. Meaning on the outer edge, you’re not completely removed from Israel, but they’re on the outer edge of the camp. Everyone who is lepros has a discharge and everyone who’s unclean through contact with the dead. Now, first thing to keep in mind is the Book of Leviticus goes into much greater detail about all of these issues. What we have here is a shortened summary of ritual impurity.
They would have known that this is speaking to these larger issues. This is a reminder of these kinds of things. It was more than just these three, but these are the types of things that caused disruption within their community. And second, it will not help if we try to make this all about medical practices meant to keep Israel physically healthier. This is the tendency of modern evangelicals, I think, largely because it comes from a desire to make sense of what we’re reading from our vantage point and not from theirs.
It is true some of these practices would help with health issues, to be sure. But the reason the text gives us is because of ceremonial purity. That is, the rationale. God is not trying to sneak in some advice on eating vegetables to a bunch of people who don’t have medical knowledge. The ancient world understood far more than we give them credit for.
They understood a lot about diseases. And there were other clearly infectious diseases they knew about that weren’t covered at all by rituals of purity. Speaking of leprosy, that’s in the Old Testaments, a broad category for skin diseases. Leprosy, a bodily discharge of a certain kind and touching of a dead body. Notice that these are not issues of personal sin.
They are issues of defilement. What they seem to have in common is that they all visibly touch on issues of life and death. Impurity is related to death. Purity is related to life. Symbols of death are not to come in contact with a living God.
The Cliff Note version of looking through the 613 laws of the Old Testament and a multitude of scholars is that summary symbols of death are not to come in contact with the living God. I appreciate Old Testament scholar Dennis Olsen. He put it this way. He said, no single principle or concept can explain all the aspect of purity laws. But they all relate in some way to preserving certain boundaries of holiness within the community of God’s people, which is sacred by God’s presence in their midst.
That’s what’s at stake is a holy God is in their presence. And he goes on in verse three, he says, you shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile the camp in the midst of which I dwell. And the people of Israel did exactly what Moses through the Lord, had commanded. Now, one of the first responses is to think, at least for many of us, well, that’s not fair. I mean, it’s not their fault they got sick, not their fault that somebody died and they had to carry the body out.
A couple of considerations. Most of the issues of ceremonial impurity are easily remedied, a simple washing, a time period, or even a simple offering. So most of these considerations were something they could deal with quite easily. Another is that none of these things kept people from their own personal devotion to the Lord.
Their prayer life, their devotion, all these things are still there. It separated them from certain aspects of communal life. Another thing, unlike the nations around them, israel’s strict monotheism, one God kept life from being a war between the gods. The other nations attributed to many things to the work of demons, supernatural forces. We have an abundance of tablets from these different cultures and they talk about this sort of stuff everywhere, charms and spells and things to keep demonic activity from taking place.
And this is one of the areas where the Bible is entirely unique from that. The Bible does not do that. What caused Israel’s defilement was not demonic forces, it was human activity. There was no the devil made me do it. It put personal responsibility at the forefront for Israel’s life before God.
That was something very different. I appreciate british anthropologist Mary Douglas. She noticed that this about the Old Testament law. She said, unlike the other nations and cultures of the ancient world, and I would also say the modern world, but unlike them, Israel’s laws did not discriminate by race, nationality, gender or social class. That’s remarkable.
Don’t just let that skip by you. Cultures all times and places have practiced exclusion of others who were foreign or who are on the outer edges of society that is common to humanity. And it’s not a good thing, exclusion to file it based on those issues. Not so. The Bible.
The Bible is unique in this. Now, in the Western world today, all these purity issues, when you look through Leviticus for some of these things, they can seem a bit crazy. We look at that and go that just doesn’t like wow, that’s strange. But know this, we like everyone in all times and places, exclude people based on issues of purity. The filement.
The difference is ours makes sense to us and it wouldn’t make sense to them in all the ways in the same way we look at well, it doesn’t make sense to us, so it’s stupid. Well, ours makes sense, so it must be okay, we exclude based on these issues of purity as well. What do I mean? If you do not hold to my beliefs, you’re now excluded from the conversation. That’s on the right.
It’s on the left. You can read those who would self identify as woke, those who self identify as nationalist and they sound the same. Both exclude based on adherence to their standards of what the files are not. We have things that make people in and people out in society. Strange way.
The books from JK. Rollins. The Harry Potter series. There were book burnings not too long ago, not from religious people. That happened a while back.
The latest bunch was Burning because of her particular views of human sexuality differed from another set of people’s views on human sexuality. So their response was burn her books. That’s a purity claim, that’s a defilement claim.
Cultures have always done this.
To exclude based on these adherence to standards that we do, are typically based on what you think. Your social class, your race can be, your gender. Those are things that we do that the Bible actually speaks against thousands of years ago. And notice that much of these ceremony rules depends on you being honest. How would England know if you weren’t ritually pure?
For a lot of these things, to live in community means to live honestly before one another. My life affects the lives of others. This was ingrained in Israel and we see it repeatedly in their history. In the book of Joshua, one man achieved, he stole some things that he wasn’t supposed to and all of them paid for it. God is the one who had to reveal this hidden sin, but it was a sin nonetheless that affected them.
And immediately we go, that’s not fair. My messy life interacts with yours. We’re created to be in society, with God and with one another. And just because someone doesn’t like it doesn’t make it change. You dump pollution in the water upstream and who pays for it?
Everybody downstream, whether you like it or not.
And Israel was to live honestly before one another, to be able to communicate these things openly. And the other area then that would cause disorder beyond ceremonial purity was issues of sin. Ethics, morality, how you lived. These were sin issues that could be avoided simply by loving your neighbor as yourself. But they, like us, struggled with that.
And in verse five it says lord spoke to Moses saying, speak to the people of Israel. When a man or woman commits any of the sins that people commit by breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes that he shall confess his sin and he shall make full restitution and and adding a fifth 20% to be given to the one, he wronged. It’s speaking of sins, of fraud and theft, deliberate sins. And this largely speaks of a breakdown with covenant with other people, which is ultimately a breakdown of faith with the Lord. That’s what it says there.
This sin is a breaking faith with the Lord. That is the sin. Breaking faith with one another. Restitution has to be given because to live in society, israel had to deal with wrongs that they committed against others. Undet with sin destroys community.
And we see that when wicked people get away with injustice, society starts crumbling. Resentment and bitterness grows and destroys order.
So Israel is to deal with their sins against one another, confessing that and dealing with it in a real way. If they’re going to live together as the people of God. The next case study, verse eleven to 31 admittedly is a very strange one to us. Verse 29 summarizes and says this is a law in cases of jealousy and we’re given a very elaborate trial by ordeal. In verse twelve it says if any man’s wife commits adultery goes on to say if it’s hidden from the eyes of her husband and she is undetected, no witness against her.
In verse 14 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’s jealous of his wife though she has not defiled herself then the summary is the man brings an offering to the Lord, it’s a public issue. He puts himself out there. If he’s wrong he looks like an idiot and it puts his wife at great risk as well. So it’s a public thing they’re bringing before the community because this is egregious sin potentially. In short, the priest mixes up some dust from the temple floor with water and there there is a curse that is is pronounced and she drinks this water and that is the trial by ordeal.
In verse 19 the priest shall make her take an oath saying if no man has lain with you, be free from this water of bitterness or contention that brings the curse if she was guilty. The summary of this summarize, it is almost likely infertility was the punishment. Several things to note. Other ancient trial by ordeals presumed guilt. It required a miracle to show innocence.
We have large sections of the Code of Hammurabi. He was a Babylonian king prior to this time and a similar thing is found there a woman accused of being adulterers. She was supposed to jump in a river, one of those things you jump in a river and if you made it well, I guess you were innocent. And there were other trials by ordeal not just for this sin but for other things where a person put their hand into boiling water, they would grab a hot metal and if it didn’t hurt you, you were innocent. Some of them also included to drink a drink with dust from the temple of their God.
So that was a similarity but it went along with the trial of ordeal here. That was the trial of ordeal. So some things to notice right away. This was the only Old Testament law that required a miracle for a judicial decision. The presumption was one of innocence, not guilt.
There was nothing intrinsic about the process that did anything to the woman. It was a symbolic process, no magic involved nor do they put strict nine into the water and well, she lives through it, she’s innocent. No, something was harmless. The Lord would have to act in order for the woman to be found guilty. The punishment was not death like in cases of proven adultery between a man and a woman where both were put to death.
She wasn’t put to death. The punishment was infertility that the Lord would cause. Now, a jealous or suspicious husband could simply not dispense his own vindication. That’s common through history. That was common in this time period.
A jealous man could bring about a vindication against an innocent wife and there was nothing she could do about it. So there was great protection given by the law of Moses to the Israelite woman. Unlike the surrounding cultures, adultery is detrimental to any society and causes great social harm and breakdown. Unchecked vigilanteism also is detrimental and causes great societal harm. Both of these issues are addressed.
The jealous, suspicious man could do nothing to his wife. He had to trust the Lord’s judgment, not his own.
Purity for Israel then meant Israel being free of physical, moral and ritual contamination. That’s what it meant for them. From Olsen again, he said the key concern of biblical purity laws is that the holy and powerful God of Israel is really and intensely present in the midst of the community. God’s present there and makes the whole camp holy, sets apart as God’s special chosen people whom God loves with a steadfast love that endures forever for Israel. The nation called by God to enter into this special covenant relationship a theocracy, a country run by God’s law and direction, purity was essential.
They were to be free again from physical, moral and ceremonial contamination. They were to be distinct, set apart from all the nations of the world because God was in their midst. Impurity defilement was a constant threat to the holiness of God dwelling with them. It highlights original sin. It highlights the fact that we are sinful and broken people.
But ceremonial impurity was impossible to avoid. You can avoid sin by not sinning. You could not avoid ceremonial impurity because you just live life. Living ordinary life at times would cause you to be impure. Sex, childbirth, death, sickness, touching something unclean, all those things were common to humanity.
But again, there were simple ways for this to be dealt with. Oh, that was so terrible.
A basic washing, a time period, a simple offering could remove this. God gave very easy ways to deal with defilement. And this defilement was not intrinsic to you being a man or a woman, being a particular race, being a particular social class. That’s not what separated you from God. Completely unique in human history, the purpose was that Israel was to be distinct, a holy nation, a called nation.
The presence of the Lord was with them directly. A holy God with an unholy people. How is that going to work? How was the lives of messy sinners going to keep this new nation from disintegrating? Well, we see here shortly.
It’s a two week journey from here to the promised Land and things start to fall apart the minute they get going. They’re hardly on the way and things start falling apart. The problem is the heart.
While God did not give up on them, israel was constantly wanting to give up on God. Just sort of like, just let me do what I want to do the way I want to do it, and leave me alone. That’s common to all of us through all history. Just let me do what I want to do and leave me alone.
And God is in the midst of saying, you know what? The things that you want to do are harmful to you, they’re harmful to others, and I need to deal with your heart, because for me to be present with you, you need to have a heart change.
Jesus did not in his life undo these ceremonial laws. He would heal. Someone actually told him to go back to the priest to do what Moses commanded. Jesus highlighted what made a person unclean or defiled was what came out of the heart. It was Jesus death that did away with the ceremonial loss.
It was Jesus death that paid the penalty for the broken moral laws. The author of Hebrews would repeatedly tell us that these former things were a copy, a shadow of what was to come. They were symbols that pointed to something greater. And the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord, spoke to him and said, the days are coming when I will put my laws in their minds, write them on their hearts. I will be their God and they shall be my people.
Our defilement for sin has been dealt with once and for all. The Church, the body of Christ, is where you and I now get to live out the work of Christ with one another. A community of those who are forgiven, who extend forgiveness to others.
I have been forgiven, so I am going to extend forgiveness to you who have wronged me. A community that embraces one another and is open to others, joining in. That does not exclude because of gender, because of race, nationality or social class. Yes, there is a purity to be maintained in the Church due to sin, because the moral laws don’t cease, they are brought about in fullness of joy. We get to live righteously, and when those things are broken, it damages us, it damages the community.
And so we do highlight those.
But there is forgiveness, there is restoration. There is a means for coming back into community because of Jesus. No one’s excluded. In that sense, that is completely unique. The ancient world, all the way through to the modern world, we have been dividing, excluding putting people, labeling them as pure or unclean, defiled according to the various standards of a wishy washy society.
And the Lord comes in the midst of that and says, I need to deal with your heart. And the only way that can be dealt with is through my son coming, living a perfect life. Jesus alone, jesus alone could touch something defiled, impure. And he made it clean. He cleansed the leper, he healed the sick.
He forgave sins and rightly people go, wait a minute. Only God can do that. Yep. Bing, bing, bing, bing. Yes.
God in our midst, Emmanuel. God with us. He would not walk away from his people in order that we would have fullness of life in Him. And that life now includes the church that we are. This representation as we await the glory coming when all things will be perfected and we live mesoly together under the head of our sovereign.
And the only way we don’t disintegrate and do what the world does is because of His Spirit dwelling in us, calling us back, calling us back to the One who has set us free from sin and death. Pray with me. Father, we are so grateful that you have not left us to our own devices. Father, we are so grateful that you have cleansed us from our sin, that you have cleansed us from the filament. And Lord, we would ask that it would please you to use us as Your people to bring that good and powerful and wonderful news to this community.
Father, we ask that you would forgive us where indeed we have excluded others based on sinful reasons. And Lord, that we indeed would be the body of Christ, the church where every tongue, nation and tribe would bow before you, declare you as Lord. We bless you for the goodness that we have received, for the hearts that you have changed through our Savior Jesus, and whose name we now pray.
Disclaimer: Automated Sermon Transcription