From Slaves to Soldiers

Chapter 5

As Eugene Peterson said, becoming a truly human community is a long, complex, and messy business. The book of Numbers plunges the reader into the growing pains of the nation of Israel as they learned how to adopt love and justice to daily living.

The practical facet of the regulations for skin diseases was part of the directions that Yahweh gave his people in order to set them apart from the surrounding nations who didn’t know him. Moses had told his people that the laws would be their wisdom and understanding in the sight of the people of other nations, who, when they heard all the decrees Yahweh’s people lived by, that they would say that this great nation of Israel surely consisted of a wise and understanding people. The religious characteristic of these directions is that Yahweh gave them to his people to teach them truths about themselves, about their God, and about their relationship to him. Another aspect of these rules was to illustrate that corruption was repulsive to Israel’s perfect God, Yahweh. The laws of clean and unclean were intended to be a picture that showed that the totality of human lives were, by nature, unclean. Uncleanness is a picture of sin, and as it was almost impossible for the ancients to get through a day without uncleanness, Yahweh used these laws to show how thoroughly sin had corrupted human life. The laws about tzara’at (serious skin diseases) and ritual impurity are a physical demonstration of a spiritual truth. The unclean are unfit to have a relationship with Yahweh or his community. The unclean are in a hopeless state. Today, the unclean are those who haven’t put their trust in the atoning blood of Yeshua ha Mashiach. A person is both clean and holy and in the protectorate of Yahweh or is unclean and unholy and out of his realm. That is wholly the result of whether or not one trusts Yeshua ha Mashiach.[1]

The narrator repeated the command to keep the location clean so they wouldn’t defile their camp, the place Yahweh lived among them. The people obeyed and Yahweh told Moses to tell the people that when humans sin they are breaking trust with their God, Yahweh. The laws regarding personal property and restitution are examples of what the Psalmist said – Yahweh’s laws are flawless. Israel could be sure that it was wise to listen to what their God said and following his law would convert the soul of the thief and make him an honest man. Israel could rejoice because Yahweh’s rulings are always appropriate and desirable. Anyone who wants clarification about what is the right action may find the answer in Yahweh’s faultless commandment. His judgments are always true and blameless. Yahweh’s decisions are more valuable than any material blessing not only because they protect the innocent but also because they warn the malefactor that there is greater reward in a trustworthy life than in a life of crime. The law of restitution is a positive approach to the punishment of criminals, putting them to productive repayment and compensating the victims of their theft. If a thief was poverty-stricken he would be sold as an indentured laborer, with the money from the sale going to the victim. It would have made sense for the needy person to sell himself as an indentured worker in the first place instead of stealing as a solution to his need.[2]

The sin had to be confessed to Yahweh along with the one sinned against and compensation made. The atonement offering went to the priest and if compensation couldn’t be made to the offended party for some reason, it had to be given to the priest. Yahweh was teaching his people to be accountable. An important part of being accountable is making amends. The victim of an offence should not have to suffer the consequences of the offender’s actions. The sinner needed to be willing to suffer the consequences of his or her own actions in order to make it right for the victim. Yahweh required that the offender restored what he or she took and add one fifth to the compensation. In this way, the offender would also suffer loss and be forced to identify with the victim.

Aaron Ben-Zeév Ph.D. says that jealousy stems from the desire to be “favored” in some respect and the fear that one is not. This fear might be based upon hard evidence [quite often it’s not]. … Suspicious jealousy is another type of jealousy, which is not based on the actual deeds of our partner, but merely on our state of mind. Suspicious jealousy is harder to bear, as we are not sure what the real situation is and the optimal course of action is unclear. … Insecurity and an active imagination are crucial aspects in suspicious jealousy. These thoughts are irrational most of the time; they are painful at all times.[3]

Yahweh told Moses what to do when a man was jealous of his wife and suspected her of infidelity. If he was right, she wouldn’t be able to have any more children and if he was wrong he would look foolish when she drank the bitter water and continued to bear children. Yahweh’s instructions would have the effect of making a woman think twice before she cheated. It would also make the man think twice before he accused his wife of infidelity and made his-self look foolish. Yahweh’s regulation would have the effect of bringing out the guilt for the woman if she had been unfaithful, and the guilt of the man if his fears were groundless.

The jealous man couldn’t pour oil on his offering or add incense because jealousy is better and destructive. Oil represented the Holy Spirit of Yahweh and incense represented the prayers of the people. Neither was a part of jealousy.

The priest was to uncover the hair of the woman who was being accused of infidelity. An exposed head was a disgrace for a daughter of Israel.[4] The holy water mixed with dust from the ground, and the washed off words of the curse in a pottery jar wouldn’t hurt the woman, but if she had been unfaithful the ceremony would be remembered when she failed to bear any more children and she would be shamed. An added insult was that her belly would swell as though she was expecting a child but she would never give birth.

“Rabbi Chanan Brichto (of blessed memory) taught that this passage was essentially designed to protect women against jealous husbands.”[5]

 

 

Summary of chapter 5

The statements in in this chapter are a logical and valid part of the divine regulations that protected and guided Israel in the wilderness.

This chapter recounts the law regarding the exclusion of diseased and unclean persons from the camp of Israel, the resolution of the problem of restitution in case of the death of the victim. The need for the regulations for a trial of jealousies could have come out of a situation where a jealous husband sought action against his wife. The regulation was more a foil against pagan superstitions than anything else was. At that time, the world was full of “trials by ordeal”; and in order to prevent any Israelite from resorting to one of those infamous pagan ordeals, a very mild and harmless substitute for such trials was provided by Yahweh in the specific regulations given here. Any judgment of an adverse nature falling upon any woman subject to the trial in view here would have had to be the direct intervention of Yahweh himself. It created an impassable gulf between the Yahweh’s laws and the mythical superstitions of paganism. There is nothing similar to this Biblical account in any of the fantastic “ordeals” which featured the myths and practices of paganism. Even the ordeal attributed to the Code of Hammurabi involved the possibility of the woman being drowned by throwing herself in the river, and would have involved her death if the customary weights were affixed to her person, the verdict being guilty if she drowned, innocent if she survived.

 

 

Prayer: I love you my Lord. You are the great I AM – reality behind all reality, my creator and sustainer. You are my guide and counselor – the rock of my salvation and my safe ark. Your unerring testimony is the source of true wisdom. Your perfect law restores the true nature of your image in my soul. Your instructions bring me joy because they are so clear-cut and precise. When I read the instructions you gave Israel I see that they were designed to make Israel a strong, mature, and wise nation. Nehemiah said “the joy of the Lord is your strength” and the psalmist said that you inhabit the praises of your people. I know that praising you makes my heart joyful because meditating on your mercy, grace, and justice is a joyful exercise. You are the source of everything good and perfect so even thoughts of you are joy inducing. Speaking of you strengthens the gladness in my heart. Singing your praises enhances joy into ecstasy.

 

 

 

Things to think about

  1. What do you think Eugene Peterson meant when he said becoming a truly human community is a long, complex, and messy business?
  2. How was the nation of Israel learning to adapt their daily living to love and justice?
  3. How did Yahweh’s regulations for skin disease set Israel apart from other nations?
  4. How were other nations supposed to react to Israel’s laws for health care?
  5. What did the laws of clean and unclean teach about Yahweh and human relations to him?
  6. Why do you think it was important for an offender to confess his sin to both Yahweh and the one he or she sinned against and compensate both for the sin?
  7. What does the law of jealousy tell us about Yahweh and his wisdom?

 

 

[1] From Displaying Holiness by Allison Kohn, page 125

[2] From Out of Bondage by Allison Kohn, chapter 22

[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-the-name-love/200909/darling-are-you-suspicious-me

[4] http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/9933/jewish/Chapter-5.htm#showrashi=true

[5] http://www.reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/naso/jealousy-and-suspicion

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