The essential ingredient of a good story is sequence: a plot in which one event follows another in an orderly way, and every element plays its part in advancing the story line. Ever since Aristotle, it has been generally accepted that a story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that these elements should normally be closely connected to one another. To be sure, we are perhaps more plot-driven in our culture than at most times and places in history. We tend to be impatient with slow-moving novels, and we expect our stories to evidence a tight narrative structure. A book like Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which contains a whole chapter that simply describes the view over fifteenth-century Paris from the roof of the cathedral, quickly makes us seek out the abridged version. Yet even that chapter has a function within the larger narrative of The Hunchback, giving the book a gothic, overdecorated tone that matches the architecture of the cathedral itself.
What function does Numbers 15 play in its context though? Why does the writer suddenly switch from telling a story to recounting what seems at first sight to be a series of miscellaneous laws? Is this simply poor storytelling technique? Or is there a method to his apparent madness, a reason why these particular laws fit into this particular context and move the overall narrative forward? You may remember that we asked the same question back in our discussion of Numbers 7 and found there that the laws inserted in the narrative had a particular significance within their specific narrative. The same is true here.
Numbers 15 is primarily about different kinds of sacrifices. The connection between the various sections of this chapter and what precedes this chapter becomes clear when you understand the purpose of these sacrifices. Israel’s sacrifices served a number of different functions in their religious life. Some sacrifices provided atonement for sin, others paid tribute to their heavenly overlord, while still others were the means of enjoying table fellowship with their covenant King. In this chapter, all three purposes are present. The opening section focuses on the meal aspect of these sacrifices (vv. 1–21), the offering of the first dough functions as tribute to the King (vv. 22–26), while the remainder of the section on offerings discusses which sins can be atoned for and which cannot (vv. 27–36). The case study of the man gathering wood on the Sabbath is included at this point as an example of a sin that cannot be atoned for, and then the chapter closes with the requirement that the Israelites wear tassels on their garments as a reminder of their covenant God (vv. 37–41). As we will see in our next study, this last section sums up the theme of the whole chapter, describing the obligations that flow from a relationship of grace.
First, the narrator describes the offerings made by fire (vv. 1–13). These sacrifices were not those that were required to atone for specific sins but rather those associated with more general fellowship with God, whether burnt offerings or fellowship offerings.1 These sacrifices were offered in the fire on the altar, and the smoke from the sacrifice ascended as an aroma pleasing to the Lord, as if the Lord too were participating in the meal. The regulations in Numbers 15 strengthen the picture of table fellowship between God and man by requiring a symbolic balanced meal at these offerings: a large portion of meat must always be accompanied by the appropriate carbohydrates and beverage. A grain offering of two quarts of flour mixed with oil was required with a sheep or a goat, together with a drink offering of a quart of wine (vv. 4, 5). Moreover, a sheep or a goat was only the small-size serving. These sacrifices also come in “regular” portions (a ram; vv. 6, 7) and “super-size” (a bull; vv. 8–10). In each case, the accompanying “side orders” had to be scaled up to match (vv. 11, 12).
REBUKE AND PROMISE
In the context of the surrounding narrative, these laws were both a rebuke and a promise. They were a rebuke to the unbelief that doubted the goodness of the Promised Land: if the future Israelites would be able to offer such substantial meals to their God, then they themselves would hardly go hungry. There would be abundant food for all. Yet alongside the implicit rebuke is a clear promise of grace for the future: in the days ahead, the Lord will enjoy fellowship with his people on a continuing basis. God and man will still eat together at one table.
Aren’t you amazed by God’s overwhelming grace to sinners? I don’t know about you, but if I were the Lord, my patience with Israel would have been long since exhausted by this point in the journey. He had brought them safely all the way from Egypt. Yet at the threshold of entry into the Promised Land, the majority of the scouts fell victim to unbelief and spread a bad report about the nature of the land and the power of its occupants (13:32). For their part, the people chose to believe the bad report of the majority, which left the Lord out of the equation entirely, in spite of the passionate pleas of Joshua and Caleb to trust God. They were ready to stone Joshua and Caleb, elect new leadership, and march right back to Egypt (14:1–4, 10). Even after the people heard the Lord pronounce judgment on their unbelief and send them back toward the wilderness, their next act was a further step of unbelief, trying now to enter the land without the Lord’s help (14:40–45). What is the Lord to do with such a people? I know what I would do! After all this ingratitude, if I were the Lord, I would have been ready to wipe out the whole nation on the spot, whatever Moses might say on their behalf.
The Lord’s very next word to his people after this renewed act of unbelief was this, however: “When you come into the land you are to inhabit, which I am giving you …” (15:2)! Isn’t that incredible? God’s good plan for this people was not aborted in spite of all of their sin. There was a future for Israel in the land of promise, a future of intimate relationship. What is more, God didn’t simply restore Israel while keeping them at a distance. Sometimes we do that. Perhaps we promise a friend that we will take him or her to the airport next week. In between our making the promise and the time for the trip, though, we have a falling out. We may still do what we said we would for our friend because we feel obligated, but the atmosphere on the trip may be like the inside of a freezer. We do what we have promised, but we do not restore the relationship. God is not like us, however. He welcomes Israel back into his presence, to share fellowship. Our God is indeed, as Moses said, “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression” (14:18, quoting Exodus 34:6, 7).
God’s grace is also evident in the insistence of the passage that this fellowship with the Lord extends to both native-born Israelites and sojourning aliens alike (vv. 13–16). The rules are to be the same for both. Once again the significance of that ruling in this context goes beyond the obvious. On the one hand, it is certainly true that in this regulation there is a faint foreshadowing of the gospel call to the nations, that one day Jews and Gentiles would be able to stand before God side by side on the same terms. Far from the Gentiles always being enemies to be feared, one day at least some of them will come to worship Israel’s God. Aliens and strangers were to be welcomed into the covenant community. However, that is not the only significance of the regulations here. In this context the key significance of this ruling is surely that one day in the future there will be native-born Israelites! There will one day be a generation of children who from birth can call the Promised Land home.
At this point in the book of Numbers, this declaration calls for faith on the part of Israel. The Israelites were still themselves wandering aliens, trekking through the wilderness. In fact, they had just been condemned to wander there for another forty years (14:34). Yet God promised that their children would nonetheless enter the Promised Land and inherit it as their own. This regulation that sojourners and native-born Israelites be treated alike depends on, and reaffirms, that promise. One day there would be native-born Israelites, people with a natural birthright of access to God that mere aliens and sojourners in their midst would envy. The new generation of native-born Israelites, the very ones whom the older generation in their unbelief had asserted would become plunder for the inhabitants of the land (14:3), would actually have profound rights and privileges before God.
However, along with privileges also come responsibilities, as we see in the next sequence of laws concerning the first dough (vv. 17–21). Since God is the one who gives the land to his people, they in turn need to make an offering from everything that it produces. That is the principle behind the requirement elsewhere that Israel tithe all of their crops and herds and that every year they offer the firstfruits to the Lord. In the days to come, though, they were also to take the first portion of every batch of dough2 and present it to the Lord. This law also presupposes that the people will receive the promise of the land, which will provide grain and flour in abundance. What is more, this regulation brings the law of firstfruits home to every household: the firstfruits of both the threshing floor and the vat were already claimed by God (Exodus 22:29; cf. Numbers 18:12, 13), but that would merely have been a single annual obligation, much like we have to file an annual tax return. Now they had to bring the first cake out of every batch of bread that they prepared to the priest as a gift to the Lord. In that way the cooks would constantly be reminded of the one from whom their daily bread came.
THE WAY TO TRUE FREEDOM
When you look at these laws in their narrative context, they thus show us profound spiritual truths. To begin with, they challenge our instinctive notion that obedience to God’s Law is bondage and that doing whatever we want brings freedom. In the previous chapter Israel chose the way of unbelief, which led to disobedience. They were afraid that if they obeyed God and did what he required, it would lead to death for themselves and bondage for their children (14:3). Yet, in reality it was their unbelief that led to their lives being wasted in the wilderness. Disobedience broke their relationship with God and led to death. On the other hand, faith follows the way of obedience to the demands of God’s Law, which in turn, as these regulations underscore, leads to life in God’s presence and fellowship with him. The goal of God’s regulations is not to ruin our lives but to fulfill them.
The same negative dynamic often operates in our own lives. Why is it that we give in to sin and disobedience so often, even though we know what we are doing is wrong? Why is it that we are so ineffective when we try to sanctify ourselves by our own effort, by telling ourselves to work harder? Such an approach rarely brings about lasting change in our lives because the root of our sin lies buried more deeply than our effort can reach. Tackling sin with mere effort is like trying to fight a tank with a water pistol: our weaponry cannot reach the heart of the issue. In fact, our heart is the heart of the issue: the underlying dynamic that drives our sin is our unbelief.3 Like the Israelites, we have false beliefs about God that we persist in doggedly in spite of all of the evidence to the contrary. Until these deep-rooted core beliefs are challenged, little real change is possible in our lives. That is why even when we recognize that our sinful patterns lead to painful consequences, we often find that we cannot change them.
The fundamental problem that drove Israel’s patterns of sin was their failure to believe that God is good and had good purposes for them. Faced with oversized enemies entrenched in fortified cities, Israel concluded that they would certainly die in any attempt to conquer the land (14:3). This is unbelief. In spite of the evidence of the firstfruits of the land in the shape of an enormous bunch of grapes (13:23), Israel chose instead to believe the majority report of the scouts that the land was bad and that it devoured its inhabitants (13:32). This is unbelief. When the Lord condemned them to wander another forty years in the wilderness, they then decided they could conquer the giant-infested land after all, with or without God (14:40–45). This is unbelief. Unbelief drove their disobedience.
THE DYNAMICS OF UNBELIEF
We need to clarify something at this point, however. When we speak of unbelief, it sounds very passive. Sometimes people will say, “Oh, it’s wonderful that you believe the things you do about God. You are a person of such faith. But I’m afraid I don’t have your kind of faith.” They make it sound as if Christians have the ability to believe in something, but they, poor souls, do not. Actually, though, unbelief is a position involving just as much faith as belief. Unbelief is as strongly committed to its view of the world as belief is. There is no such thing as a faith-free zone in this world.
This is clear from the example of the Israelites. Their actions were all profoundly irrational, if the Creator God of the universe was committed to them. They only make sense if Israel believed that God was actually their enemy, determined to do them harm. Unbelief is the opposite of faith not in being the absence of faith, but in being faith in the opposite set of propositions about God. Unbelief is the firm faith that, for all practical purposes, God does not exist, God does not care, God is not involved actively in my life.
The same dynamic of unbelief drives our own patterns of sin. Does giving in to sin really work for us? Does it fulfill us and leave us feeling warm and cozy all over? Does not following the path of sin, in most cases, leave us in the wilderness, thirsty and hungry and profoundly empty? So why do we continue to do it? Why are we so easily led astray into temptation and sin? It is because at a deep level we don’t really believe that God is good and has good purposes for us. We have a deep-seated practical belief that, on the contrary, God is not really working all things for our good. If we believed profoundly in God’s existence, power, and good purpose for us, then studying his laws and following them would become so natural and obvious that our lives would be transformed from the center outward.
THE ROAD TO RELATIONSHIP
That is why Numbers 15 makes a fitting sequel to Numbers 14. Israel’s unbelief and disobedience that led to a broken relationship was not the end of the road for God’s relationship with his people. Relationship with him is, after all, the good purpose for which God has designed us. The Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us that we were made “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Or to put it another way, we were created to enjoy a relationship of close fellowship with God. Why was God going to bring Israel into the Promised Land? Was it simply so they could have a beautiful place in which to live, equipped with all of the ancient conveniences? Far from it: entry into the land was merely the beginning of God’s purpose for them. Once they were in the land, Israel would begin to offer these sacrifices, which would then be the means of their experiencing rich fellowship with the living God. Whereas Numbers 14 showed that disobedience leads to death, Numbers 15 shows that the doorway to a life-giving relationship with God is still open. If the older generation had truly believed that was God’s enduring purpose for them, as Joshua and Caleb did, then they would have been prepared to take on whatever giants they faced in order to enter the land. They would not even have feared death if they had truly believed in God’s good purpose of lasting fellowship with himself.
The nature of God’s good purpose for us is an important point to grasp because for some people around us sin does seem to be “working”—at least, if our understanding of the purpose of existence is skewed. If the chief end of man is to have a comfortable life, surrounded by everything our heart desires, then sin is definitely working for some people. That is what troubled the psalmist in Psalm 73. He saw people around him who had no commitment to follow God and pursue his ways, yet whose lives were free from visible trouble and pain, who seemed outwardly to be prospering (vv. 2–12). His faith was jolted, and he wondered if his obedience to God was just so much wasted effort (vv. 13, 14).
Visiting the sanctuary reoriented the psalmist’s thinking, however. What he saw there was exactly what Numbers 15 makes provision for: rich fellowship between God and his people that transcends the generations. There in the sanctuary, the psalmist realized what he had that the wicked lacked: God’s presence and favor with him now and the prospect of that fellowship continuing on into glory. “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (vv. 25, 26). He grasped afresh the fact that God’s good purpose for his people was fellowship with them, both now and forever, and suddenly the position of the wicked didn’t seem so enviable after all. Embracing that relationship as his highest desire changed his heart and dealt with his grumbling spirit.
The motivating power of all sin lies in failing to believe God’s good purpose for us, which is for us to glorify him and enjoy him forever. Temptation always offers us something: Satan never goes fishing with a bare hook. It doesn’t always deliver what it seems to offer, but it always offers something. Yet whatever temptation offers us, it cannot offer us the opportunity to glorify or to enjoy God. Whatever we are pursuing when we sin, it is always something less than God’s good purpose for us. It is a functional idolatry of something other than the Lord. In practice, we are believing that something else is better than experiencing joyous fellowship with him forever. Something else has become our chief purpose in life, the desire that is driving us. Perhaps it is comfort or pleasure or pleasing people or succeeding in our career or having the perfect home. Idols come in all shapes and sizes, but until we do what the psalmist did and reorient our thinking at the most basic level, sin will always seem more attractive to us than righteousness as a means to satisfy our idolatry. As long as something other than fellowship with God is our chief purpose in life, we will easily be seduced away from obedience.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF FELLOWSHIP
Desiring fellowship with God above all else is not only the foundation for our obedience—it will shape our attitude toward giving as well. Numbers 15 makes substantial demands on the resources of God’s people. We may well not grasp how substantial they were since we don’t typically own working livestock, but an ox was the equivalent of a tractor or a car in the ancient world. Imagine taking your car to church as an offering and watching it go up in flames. That would be quite a commitment! The animal sacrifices laid out in the opening verses were thus not cheap, and even the commitment to give the first of every batch of dough would have meant an offering if not daily, at least weekly. It would be almost like setting another place at your table every mealtime for the Lord. How does your heart respond to such demands from God? Do they seem reasonable and desirable or burdensome and repressive?
Let me suggest that our response to the Scriptural obligations for giving is a good diagnostic test of what we are really thinking about God and about our chief purpose in life. The issue is not how much we give but our heart attitude to giving. Under the new covenant, we are no longer obligated to bring sheep and bulls to offer God, along with loaves of bread and offerings of wine. Nor are we obligated to bring to church the first roll out of every batch of sourdough bread that we bake. As a pastor, I certainly appreciate it when people in my church bring me a cake or a meal they have made, but they are not under any Scriptural duty to do so. How do we respond to that freedom? If we don’t really think God has our best interests at heart, and our chief desire is something other than fellowship with him, we will view that freedom as freedom from giving. We may still give something to the Lord, because it would look bad if we let the plate pass us by Sunday by Sunday. We may even give a large amount, if doing that feeds our functional idolatries by making others think well of us. However, we will be giving essentially for our own sake, and not for the Lord.
How will we respond, however, if we are thoroughly convinced that God is good and has the good purpose of fellowship with us, now and forever? We will desire to excel in the grace of giving, to use Paul’s terminology (2 Corinthians 8:7). We will seek to cut down our other expenses so we can give more generously to the Lord’s work, so that others too—others who are presently aliens and strangers when it comes to God—can know his beauty and enjoy his fellowship as their supreme purpose as well.
Often discussion of our giving revolves around the question “To tithe or not to tithe?” Am I obligated to give 10 percent of my income to the Lord, as Old Testament believers were, or does that requirement no longer apply to me? However, that question is already headed in the wrong direction.4 Even in the Old Testament, the tithe was merely the first of many obligations and opportunities to give, obligations and opportunities that flowed out of Israel’s relationship with God and the grace they had received from him. It is not coincidental that the various offerings that speak of fellowship with God come before the requirement to offer tribute through the first dough offering. Knowledge of God and his grace is foundational to the requirement to give.
Indeed, many of the offerings in Numbers 15 were voluntary, not compulsory, and there was certainly no rule that established how large the cake offered from the first of the dough had to be. If Israel’s thinking about God was correct, it would have been constantly evident to them that everything their land produced came to them from the Lord, the one who had given them the land in the first place. If they understood that, then the question on their lips would not be “Do I have to give?” but “How much am I able to give?”
It is the same for us. If we understand that everything we have comes to us from the Lord and that he has a good purpose for us, which is nothing other than fellowship with him, then we are ready to ask ourselves, “How much am I able to give?” In fact, it is even more true for us, for we understand more fully the cost at which our fellowship was bought. For the Old Testament saints, their fellowship meals with God were never vegetarian affairs. An animal had to die for the fellowship between God and man to take place. That is not coincidental. It is a picture of how fellowship between God and man would ultimately be restored through the death of Christ on the cross. Our Savior didn’t ask, “How much do I have to give?” He didn’t just give the first lump of his dough or even sacrifice a costly bull out of his own resources. For the sake of our fellowship with the Father, he offered himself as a living sacrifice, nailed to the cross. His fellowship with the Father was temporarily broken so our fellowship with the Father could be permanently restored. All of his sufferings were experienced so the vision depicted in the fellowship sacrifices of Israel could become a reality: God and man seated together around a table, enjoying rich fellowship together. As the apostle Peter put it, “you were ransomed … not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18, 19).
If we understand the sacrifice of Christ, by which God pays for our forgiveness, then obedience to his law is transformed. No longer is it a burden for us to bear as slaves; now it is an opportunity for us to serve as sons or daughters, a way for us to experience deeper fellowship with him. If we understand that God’s goal for us is to redeem us from an empty way of life and give us the fellowship with him that we were created for, then nothing can be too much for him to ask. God’s gift of Jesus proves beyond a shadow of a doubt his care for us and the power of his desire for relationship with us. He so wanted us to be with him for eternity that he died for us on the cross.
Why then will we persist in our unbelief? How can we remain skeptical about God, no matter what difficulties face us? Why do we hold back from doing what we know God wants us to do because we fear it may be too costly? His unquenchable purpose for us is that we may know him and enjoy him forever, and his plan for our lives is entirely directed toward that goal. The gospel rescues us from our wilderness of unbelief and brings us into a new relationship with God even now, with all of its privileges and responsibilities. It continues to transform us day by day until we enter his presence, once and for all. How awesome that such grace should be shown to sinners! How incredible that such mercy should be shown to us! Yet in Christ, God who is full of grace has shown rich mercy to us so that we should be called the children of God, heirs of his promise.
This blog is taken from Kent Hughes book called Numbers: God’s presence in the wilderness (pp. 179–188).