Lesson 7: Chapters 14-15
The Rebellion and Disgrace of the Exodus Generation

Almighty God,
You described Moses as the humblest of men.  As Your faithful servant, Moses submitted himself completely in obedience to Your divine will, even when his human will made him shudder at the burden of his mission. Give each of us the courage, Lord, to be like Your servant Moses: to yield our lives into Your hands, to faithfully travel the path You have set before us, and to submit in humility to Your will for our lives no matter how difficult and uncomfortable the journey.   We pray as Your faithful servants in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

+ + +

How often they defied him in the desert!  How often they grieved him in the wastelands! Repeatedly they challenged God, provoking the Holy One of Israel. Not remembering his hand, the time when he saved them from the oppressor, he who did his signs in Egypt, his miracles in the Plains of Tanis, turning their rivers to blood, their streams so that they had nothing to drink. 
Psalm 78:40-42

They counted a desirable land for nothing, they put no trust in his promise; they stayed in their tents and grumbled, they would not listen to Yahweh's voice.
Psalm 106:24-25

The creation of the holy nation of Israel is a story told in three acts:

When the Israelites reached Kadesh-Barnea, at Yahweh's command Moses selected twelve tribal leaders to reconnoiter the land of Canaan.    Among those men he selected Moses send Caleb, a Gentile convert who had become a leader in the tribe of Judah, and his own assistant, Hosea (Num 11:28), a leader in the tribe of Ephraim.  Bishop Eusebius wrote that when Moses changed Hoshea's name to Joshua [Yehoshua, "Yahweh saves"], it was a significant moment (Num 13:16) because for the first time in salvation history Moses introduced the name "Jesus": And the same [Moses] by divine inspiration foresaw the name Jesus very clearly and again also endowed this with special privilege.  The name of Jesus, which had never been uttered among men before it was made known to Moses, Moses applied first to this one alone.  He knew that Joshua, again as a type and a symbol, would receive the rule over all after Moses' death.  His successor, at any rate, had never before used the title Jesus.  He had been called by another name Auses [Greek form of Hoshea], which his parents had bestowed upon him.  Moses himself proclaims Jesus, as a privilege of honor far greater than a royal crown, giving him the name because Jesus, the son of Nave [Greek form of Nun], himself bore a resemblance to our Savior, who alone, after Moses and the completion of the symbolic worship transmitted by him, received the rule of true and pure religion (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 1.3).  Joshua was destined to lead the children of Israel into the Promised Land of Canaan, a foreshadowing of Jesus' mission to lead the children of God into the Promised Land of heaven.

Ten of the tribal scouts told the people that their enemies were too powerful for them to overcome.  Joshua and Caleb were the only two of the twelve tribal representatives sent to scout out the Promise Land who were willing to trust in God's promise that He would give the Israelites victory over their enemies (Gen 15:18-21; 26:3-4; 28:13-14; 35:12; Ex 3:8, 17; 23:23-33; 34:11) .  The friendship and cooperation between these two men, one an Israelite member of the "chosen people" and the other a Gentile, who symbolized the other nations of the earth, prefigures the unity of the people of God-Jews and Gentiles- in the Age of the Messiah.

Chapter 14

They collected some of the produce of the country and brought it down to us; and they made us this report, "Yahweh our God has given us a fine country."  You, however, refused to go up there and rebelled against the voice of Yahweh your God.  You muttered in your tents, saying, "Yahweh hates us, and that is why he has brought us out of Egypt, to put us into the Amorites' power and so destroy us. What kind of place are we making for?  Our brothers have discouraged us by saying that the people are stronger and taller than we are, the cities immense, with walls reaching to the sky.  And we have seen Anakim [giants] there too.
Deuteronomy 1:25-28

Chapter 14 is divided into four parts:

  1. Israel's rebellion (verses 1-9).
  2. God's anger and Moses' intercession (verses 10-19).
  3. Yahweh's judgment and the people's punishment (verses 20-38).
  4. The abortive attempt to conquer Canaan (verses 39-45).

Numbers 14:1-9 The Defiant Rebellion of the Israelites
1 The whole community then cried out in dismay, and he people wept all that night.  2 All the Israelites muttered at Moses and Aaron, and the whole community said to them, 'Would to God we had died in Egypt, or even that we had died in this desert!  3 Why has Yahweh brought us to this country, for us to perish by the sword and our wives and children to be seized as booty?  Should we not do better to go back to Egypt?'  4 And they said to one another, 'Let us appoint a leader and go back to Egypt.'  5 At this, Moses and Aaron threw themselves on their faces in front of the whole assembled community of Israelites, 6 while Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, two of the men who had reconnoitered the country, tore their clothes 7 and addressed the whole community of Israelites as follows, 'The country we went to reconnoiter is a good country, an excellent country.  8 If Yahweh is pleased with us, he will lead us into this country and give it to us.  It is a country flowing with milk and honey.  9 But do not rebel against Yahweh or be afraid of the people of the country, for we shall gobble them up.  Their protecting shade has deserted them while we have Yahweh on our side.  Do not be afraid of them.'

Question: In Exodus 14:11 the Israelites had expressed the same fears and made the same unfounded claims against Yahweh, but what do they propose that they did not say in the earlier episode?  What is the extent of their sin?
Answer: This time they defied Yahweh by threatening to made plans to return to Egypt and to appoint their own leader to take them back.  It is a rebellion against God's plan for their destiny and a rejection of God's covenant mediator, Moses.

'Let us appoint a leader and go back to Egypt ...' In the books of the Prophets, the people's expressed desire "to return to Egypt" was seen as synonymous with rebellion against God (i.e., see Is 30:1-7; 31:1-3; Jer 2:18; Ez 17:15).  The people's desire to reject Moses and to choose another leader was an outright act of rebellion against God's plans for Israel and a violation of the covenant of Sinai.

Numbers 14:5-6  At this, Moses and Aaron threw themselves on their faces in front of the whole assembled community of Israelites, 6 while Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, two of the men who had reconnoitered the country, tore their clothes ...

Only Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb appear to recognize the dangerous position in which the Israelites have placed themselves.  Moses and Aaron fall on their faces and Joshua and Caleb tear their clothing as a sign of their distress.(1)  Prostrating oneself is a sign of deference or submission to a superior power, like a king or ruler or a deity.(2)  Scripture records Moses and Aaron prostrated themselves before God when making supplications (Num 16:4, 22).   However, it is unlikely this is the reason Moses and Aaron fell on their faces.  It is more likely that such a display of outright rebellion against God made them expect an immediate outpouring of divine wrath, as in the case of the deaths of Aaron's two sons and they were getting out of the line of fire (Lev 10:1-2).

In an attempt to reason with the out of control crowd, Joshua and Caleb courageously stood up to the people.  They extolled the bounty of the land they had reconnoitered and reminded the people of Yahweh's promises to them.

Numbers 14:9 But do not rebel against Yahweh or be afraid of the people of the country, for we shall gobble them up.  Their protecting shade has deserted them while we have Yahweh on our side.  Do not be afraid of them.'

Question: Caleb and Joshua attempted to calm the people's fears and to rally the people to their side, what three reasons did they give for not rebelling against God's plan for them to conquer the land of Canaan?

  1. We shall be victorious.
  2. Their enemies' pagan gods cannot protect them*.
  3. We have Yahweh on our side.

*"protecting shade" refers to the regional pagan gods who have no power over Yahweh.

Numbers 14:10-19 Yahweh's Anger and Moses' Intercession
10 The whole community was talking of stoning them, when the glory of Yahweh appeared to all the Israelites, inside the Tent of Meeting, 11 and Yahweh said to Moses: 'How much longer will these people treat me with contempt?  How much longer will they refuse to trust me, in spite of all the signs I have displayed among them?  12 I shall strike them with pestilence and disown them.  And of you I shall make a new nation, greater and mightier than they are.'  13 Moses said to Yahweh: 'Suppose the Egyptians hear about this-for by your power you brought these people out of their country-14 and tell the people living in this country.  They have heard that you, Yahweh, are with this people, and that you, Yahweh, show yourself to them face to face; that your cloud stands over them and that your go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.  15 If you kill this people now as though it were one man, then the nations who have heard about you will say, 16 "Yahweh was not able to bring this people into the country which he had sworn to give them, and so he has slaughtered them in the desert."  17 No, my Lord!  Now is the time to assert your power as you promised when you said, earlier, 18 "Yahweh, slow to anger and rich in faithful love, forgiving faults and transgression, and yet letting nothing go unchecked, punishing the parents' guilt in the children to the third and fourth generation."  19 In your most faithful love, please forgive this people's guilt, as you have done from Egypt until now.'

Question: How did Yahweh intervene to save the lives of His four faithful servants: Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb, before the people carried out their desire to kill them?
Answer: God revealed His glory to the entire assembly within the confines of the holy Sanctuary.

The people were used to seeing God's presence in the Glory Cloud ahead of them on the march and above the Tabernacle, but this manifestation must have been an even more powerful sign of His Divine Presence-perhaps it was like the day God reveled His glory to the entire community in Exodus 16:10 or similar to the Theophany at Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19:16-19 when thunder and lightening accompanied visual sign of the cloud and fire.

Numbers 14:12  I shall strike them with pestilence and disown them.  And of you I shall make a new nation, greater and mightier than they are.'

Question: Yahweh's anger with the Israelites recalls what other time that Yahweh threatened to destroy the ungrateful and rebellious Israelites and to build a nation from Moses' descendants?  See Exodus 32:7-10.
Answer: During the Golden Calf rebellion God made the same threats and the same offer  to Moses.

In the event of the Golden Calf rebellion, as in the latest rebellion, Moses stepped between the people and Yahweh's wrath in his role as covenant mediator.  After the rebellion in Exodus Chapter 32, Moses reasoned with God and implored Him to forgive the people's rebellion (Ex 32:11-14).  He also offered his life as a sacrifice for the redemption of the people, a substitute sacrifice that God declined (Ex 32:30-35).

Question: What arguments did Moses present this time to save the Israelites from destruction?  See Ex 32:11-14; 34:6-7.
Answer: He uses two arguments:

  1. In his first argument in verses 13-16 he posed a theological problem: How can God destroy the Israelites and still maintain His reputation to the Gentile nations who have now heard of His goodness and power and His sworn oath to the Patriarchs?
  2. His second argument was that such an action of unrestrained violence against the entire community was contrary to God's just and merciful nature.

It is significant that God's threatened extinction of the Israelites caused Moses to set aside the feelings of anger and frustration against the people that he expressed in Numbers Chapters 12-15 when he asked God to relieve him of the burden of his mission in shepherding these ungrateful and rebellious people.  The threat to utterly destroy the Israelites caused Moses to again shoulder his burden and take up his role as the people's covenant mediator, just as God's threat in the rebellion of the Golden Calf had caused Moses to once again stand in the breech between the wrath of God and the sin of the Israelites (Ex 32:30-32).  

Question: What was Moses' response to God's offer to make his descendants into a great nation instead of the Israelites?  Was this the same offer Yahweh made previously?
Answer: Moses had absolutely no ambition for himself or his children.  As in Exodus 32:10, he did not accept God's offer to make a great nation of his descendants. 

In his defense of the people in verses 13-19, Moses brought to God's attention His divine attributes of power, compassion and justice and God's divine plan for mankind that extended beyond the Israelites to the Gentile nations of the earth. 

Question: Compare the points Moses made to God in seeking forgiveness and mercy for the people's rebellion in Numbers 14:13-19 to the points he made in seeking God's forgiveness and mercy for Israel in the event of the Golden Calf rebellion.  See Ex 32:11-14 and 34:6-9.
Answer: He made many of the same arguments that he made in Exodus 32:11-14, including the point that the God's great acts had an impact beyond the Israelites, revealing a witness of God's power to the Gentile nations of the world.  He also reminded God of the revelation of glory that Moses witnessed and the words that God used to describe His interaction with mankind in Exodus 34:6-9-His great mercy and compassion to those who are obedient to Him and His righteous judgment on the wicked.

Numbers 14:20-38 Yahweh's Forgiveness and Israel's Penance
20 Yahweh said, 'I forgive them as you ask.  21 But-as I live, and as the glory of Yahweh fills the whole world-22 of all these people who have seen my glory and the signs that I worked in Egypt and in the desert, who have put me to the test ten times already and not obeyed my voice, 23 not one shall see the country which I promised to give their ancestors.  Not one of those who have treated me contemptuously will see it.  24 However, since my servant Caleb is of another spirit and since he has obeyed me completely, I shall bring him into the country where he has been, and his descendants will own it 25 (the Amalekites and Canaanites occupy the plain).  26 Tomorrow you will turn about and go back into the desert, in the direction of the Sea of Suph.'  27 Yahweh then spoke to Moses and Aaron and said: 'How much longer am I to endure this perverse [ra = evil]  community muttering against me:  I have heard what the Israelites mutter against me.  28 Say to them, "As I live Yahweh declares, I shall do to you what I have heard you saying.  29 In this desert your dead bodies will fall, all you who were counted in the census, from the age of twenty years and over who have muttered against me.  30 I swear none of you will enter the country where I swore most solemnly to settle you, except Caleb son of Jephuneh, and Joshua son of Nun.  31 Your children, who you said would be seized as booty, will be the ones whom I shall bring in so that they get to know the country you disdained, but, 32 as for you, your dead bodies will fall in this desert 33 and your children will be nomads in the desert for forty years, bearing the consequences of your faithlessness, until the last one of you lies dead in the desert.  34 For forty days you reconnoitered the country.  Each day will count as a year: for forty years you will bear the consequences of your guilt and learn what it means to reject me." 35 I, Yahweh, have spoken: this is how I swear to treat this entire perverse [ra = evil] community united against me.  In this desert, to the last man, they shall die.'  36 The men whom Moses had sent to reconnoiter the country and who on their return had incited the whole community of Israel to mutter about him by disparaging it, 37 these men who had disparaged the country were all struck dead before Yahweh.  38 Of the men who had gone to reconnoiter the country, only Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh were left alive.  

Numbers 14:20-23 Yahweh said, 'I forgive them as you ask.  21 But-as I live, and as the glory of Yahweh fills the whole world-22 of all these people who have seen my glory and the signs that I worked in Egypt and in the desert, who have put me to the test ten times already and not obeyed my voice, 23 not one shall see the country which I promised to give their ancestors.  The expression "as I live" is an oath formula.  Yahweh swore an oath that the generation of the Exodus who have witnessed His mighty act and seen His glory will not live to see the Promised Land. 

who have put me to the test ten times ... Ten is one of the so-called "perfect numbers", signifying perfection of order-the people had been continually testing Yahweh by demanding some divine action to prove God's power; they have now passed the point of no return and it is time for divine judgment.

Numbers 14:28 Say to them, "As I live, Yahweh declares, I shall do to you what I have heard you saying ..." It is ironic that the people, in their complaints, have pronounced their own judgment, just as the Egyptian pharaoh generated the judgment of the tenth plague in his last threat to Moses when he said 'Out of my sight!  Be sure you never see my face again, for the next time you see my face you die!'  Pharaoh's curse was reversed and became a death sentence not for Moses but for his own people.

Question: What did the Israelites say in 13:31-14:4 that became the essence of Yahweh's judgment against them in 14:28-35?

The Israelite's Complaints Yahweh's Judgment
Would to God we had died in Egypt, or even that we had died in this desert! (14:2b) In this desert your dead bodies will fall, all you who were counted in the census, from the age of twenty years and over who have muttered against me. 
We cannot attack these people; they are stronger than we are (13:31). I swear none of you will enter the country where I swore most solemnly to settle you ... (14:30)
And they began disparaging the country they had reconnoitered to the Israelites, saying, 'The country we have been to reconnoiter is a country that devours its inhabitants (13:32). 
Why had Yahweh brought us to this country, for us to perish by the sword and our wives and children to be seized as booty (14:3)?
Your children, who you said would be seized as booty, will be the ones whom I shall bring in so that they get to know the country you disdained, but, as for you, your dead bodies will fall in this desert and your children will be nomads in the desert for forty years, bearing the consequences of your faithlessness, until the last one of you lies dead in the desert  (14:31-33)
And they said to one another, 'Let us appoint a leader and go back to Egypt' (14:4). In this desert, to the last man, they shall die (14:35b).
Michal E. Hunt © 2010

Numbers 14:35  I, Yahweh, have spoken: this is how I swear to treat this entire perverse [ra = evil] community united against me.  In this desert, to the last man, they shall die.'
In Deuteronomy 1:35, Moses will contrast the "good" of the Promised Land to the "evil" of the Exodus generation: [literal translation] Not one of these men of this evil [ra] generation shall see the good [tov] land which I have sworn to give your fathers... (The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, page 459. Also see the Hebrew word 'ra/ "evil" used to describe the Exodus generation in Numbers 14:27; Deuteronomy 1:34 and 32:20). It is ironic that the desert that was the gateway to life for a newly freed people after slavery in Egypt now becomes the gateway to death for the Exodus generation. The rebellion at Kadesh-Barnea is a turning point. It is the crisis that marks the end of Act II in the great Exodus drama (the end of Act I was the arrival at Sinai). Act III will be devoted to how Israel finally became a holy people capable of fulfilling the destined that Yahweh had planned for them. Just as the first Creation event ended in crisis and destruction in the Great Flood, followed by a re-creation of a renewed earth after the flood, so too now, the birth of Israel as a new people ends in crisis and destruction to be followed by the rebirth of a holy nation in the wilderness generation.

The two men, Caleb and Joshua who had valiantly stood against ten of their kinsmen, will become the leaders of the renewed generation. They were the righteous minority-the "faithful remnant" of the twelve representatives of Israel.  The theme of the "faithful remnant" is a major Biblical theme that will be repeated throughout salvation history.

Question: What was God's judgment for the actions of these two groups of men: the two faithful leaders and the ten faithless leaders?
Answer: Of the Exodus generation, only Joshua and Caleb will survive to receive God's promise of possessing of the Promised Land.  The other ten men were struck dead in the presence of the community.

Question: The ten men who were struck down by divine judgment were leaders within their tribes.  What comparison can be made to the responsibilities of the leaders within our faith communities to encourage the community to faithful obedience?  In what ways can Parish leadership contribute to disharmony and factions within the Parish community?
Answer: Those who take on leadership positions with the Parish family are responsible for encouraging the congregation to continue in unity and faithful obedience to the teachings of the Church.  The are to lead by example and by speaking up like Caleb and Joshua in support of God's representative, His priest, and the teachings of the Magisterium when priestly authority or the teaching of Mother Church are challenged.  Parish leaders should be mindful that the day will come when their influence on the community-for good or for evil-will be judged by God.

Joshua and Caleb stand as examples of valiant leadership within the community of the faithful.  Ben Sirach described the valor of Joshua and Caleb: For he [Joshua] was a follower of the Mighty One, in the time of Moses showing his devotion, he and Caleb son of Jephunneh, by opposing the whole community, by preventing the people from sinning, and by silencing the mutters of rebellion.  Hence these two alone were preserved out of six hundred thousand men on the march, and brought into their inheritance, into a land where milk and honey flow.  And the Lord conferred strength on Caleb too, which stayed by him into old age, so that he could invest the highlands of the country which his descendants kept as their inheritance, so that every Israelite might see that it is good to follow the Lord (Sirach 46:9-10/7-12).

After the conquest, Caleb reminded Joshua of God's promise in Numbers 14:24.  Joshua gave Caleb the important city of Hebron: Joshua blessed Caleb son of Jephunneh and gave him Hebron as heritage.  And hence Hebron down to the present day has remained the heritage of Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite, since had had scrupulously obeyed Yahweh, God of Israel (Josh 14:13-14).  Today Hebron, the home of Abraham and the site of the tomb of the Patriarchs, is under the control of the Palestinians.

The Psalmist wrote of God's mercy and compassion in forgiving Israel's rebellion at Kadesh: But in his compassion he forgave their guilt instead of killing them, time and again repressing his anger instead of rousing his full wrath, remembering they were creatures of flesh, a breath of wind that passes, never to return (Psalm 78:38-39).

Numbers 14:39-45 The Israelites' Attempt to Conquer Canaan without Yahweh
39 When Moses told all the Israelites what had been said, the people set up a great outcry.  40 Early next morning they set out for the heights of the hill country saying, 'Look, we will set out for the place about which Yahweh said that we have certainly sinned.'  41 To which, Moses said, 'Why disobey Yahweh's order?  No success will come of doing so.  42 Do not go, for Yahweh is not among you, and you will be defeated by your enemies.  43 For the Amalekites and Canaanites are ahead of you, and you will be put to the sword, since you have turned away from Yahweh, and Yahweh is not with you.'  44 All the same, they presumptuously set off for the heights of the hill country.  Neither the ark of the covenant of Yahweh nor Moses left the camp.  44 The Amalekites and Canaanites living in those highlands then came down, defeated them, and harried them all the way to Hormah.

Question: What was Yahweh's judgment against the adults of the Exodus generation for their rebellion and rejection of their divinely appointed leader and God's covenant mediator, Moses?
Answer: The male adults of the Exodus generation were to wander homeless in the desert until they died.

God's judgment led to the people's grief over the verdict. Their grief, unfortunately, did not lead to humble submission and contrition but instead caused a complete turning to the opposite extreme.

Question: What did the people decide to do despite Moses' warning?  See 14:42-45.
Answer: Instead of their grief leading to repentance, their grief produced presumption and their presumption produced a fatal rashness in thinking they could avoid God's judgment for their sin by conquer their enemies on their own. 

God's just punishment for their sin of rebellion was meant to call them to repentance, but like Cain in Genesis 4:5-7 they rejected Yahweh's divine correction and fell deeper into sin in presuming to take on the Canaanites without God's help. 

Question: What was the result of the Israelite invasion of Canaan?
Answer: The Israelites were defeated.

The Canaanites drove the Israelites all the way back to a site named in this passage as Hormah, which in Hebrew means "destruction."  It is probably Tell el-Meshash, a site east of Beersheba and forty-seven miles (75 km) north of Kadesh on the edge of the central mountain ridge that runs the down the middle of Canaan.

Question: What is the message of their failure for us?
Answer: Without faith in God and obedience to His commands we cannot fulfill the destiny God has planned for us on their own, nor can we escape God's divine judgment and our personal accountability for the sins we have committed. 

The rebellious adult generation of the Exodus will perish in the desert, just as they wished in Numbers 14:2.

Chapter 15: Secondary Laws

All the males of the people who had come out of Egypt of age to bear arms had died in the desert on their journey after Leaving Egypt.  Now, all the people who came out had been circumcised; but none of those born in the desert, during the journey, after leaving Egypt, had been circumcised; for the Israelites walked the desert for forty years, until the whole nation had died out, that is, the men who had come out of Egypt of age to bear arms; they had not obeyed the voice of Yahweh, and Yahweh had sworn to them never to let them see the land which he had sworn to their ancestors that he would give us, a land flowing with milk and honey. But in place of these he set their sons, and these were the ones whom Joshua circumcised ...
Joshua 5:4b-7a

The Israelites spent about ten months at Mt. Sinai.  They spent the next thirty-eight years wandering in the desert wilderness until the Exodus generation of fighting age adult males died out with the exception of Joshua and Caleb.  The Israelites began the transition period in Chapter 15, which will continue to Chapter 25.  Yet, no dates or historical information is given in these years as the old Exodus generation who had known slavery in Egypt died out and the vital and rugged wilderness generation grew to adulthood.  The only historical information is recorded in Chapters 16 and 33, but even that information is without any note of time or place.  Chapter 33 contains the names of encampments during the years of wilderness wanderings, but provides no other information about the people's hopes and fears.  They live the nomadic life that their ancestors lived before the migration into Egypt.  All we know of this period comes from bits and pieces of information in Deuteronomy 8:2-6; 29:5-6; Joshua 5:4-7; Ezekiel 20:10-26; Amos 5:25-26; and Acts 7:42-43 (which quotes Amos 5:25-27 from the Septuagint). 

Chapter 15 is divided into three parts:

  1. Laws that will take effect when the people live in Canaan (verses 1-21)
  2. Laws concerning unintentional and intentional sins-sins of defiance that show a willful disregard of God's laws, and a judgment for the intentional sin of working on the Sabbath (verses 22-36)
  3. A reminder of the need for obedience to the Law and separateness from the Gentile world (verses 37-41)

In the first two sections we return to the pattern of seven found in the laws of the Holiness Code in Leviticus.  Numbers 15:1-31 records Yahweh's list of seven laws that will become part of the ritual of sacrifice and obedience to the Law upon entering the Promised Land.

Numbers 15:1-12 The Laws Regarding the Offering of Animal Sacrifices in the Promised Land
1 Yahweh spoke to Moses and said, 2 'Speak to the Israelites and say: "When you have arrived in the country where you are to live and which I am giving to you, 3 and you burn food as an offering to Yahweh either as a burnt offering or as a sacrifice, whether in payment of a vow, or as a voluntary gift, or on the occasion of one of your solemn feasts, from your herds and flocks as a smell pleasing to Yahweh: 4 the offerer will, as his personal gift to Yahweh, bring a cereal offering of one-tenth of an ephah of fine flour mixed with one-quarter of a hin of oil.  5 You will also make a libation of wine, one-quarter of a hin to each lamb, in addition to the burnt offering or sacrifice.  6 For a ram, you will make a cereal offering of two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with one-third of a hin of oil, and a libation of one-third of a hin of wine as a smell pleasing to Yahweh.  7 If you offer a bull as a burnt offering or sacrifice, in payment of a vow or as a communion sacrifice for Yahweh, 9 in addition to the animal you will offer a cereal offering of three-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with half a hin of oil, 10 and you will offer a libation of half a hin of wine, as blood burnt as a smell pleasing to Yahweh.  11 This will be done for every bull, every ram, every lamb or kid.  12 Whatever the number of victims you intend to offer, you will do the same for each of them, however many there are."

as a smell pleasing to Yahweh ... The Hebrew term reah nihoah "a pleasing odor/smell", is a term found in connection with these offerings and sacrifices:

It is absent from the instructions for sin offerings or for sin of reparation sacrifices and is found only once in the instructions for purification offerings in Leviticus 4:31 (JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, pages 118, 311-12).  The "pleasing smell" was the self-surrender of the people as a community or as an individual offerer.

Question: What three additional laws will become part of the sacrificial ritual when the Israelites worship Yahweh in the Promised Land?

  1. The law for grain offerings and wine libations with each lamb (verses 3-5).
  2. The law for grain offerings and wine libations with a ram (verse 6).
  3. The law for grain offerings and wine libations with a young bull (verses 7-9).

The laws requiring gain offerings and wine libations to accompany all animal sacrifices and not just the Tamid morning and afternoon sacrifice (Ex 29:38-42) were probably not part of the ritual of sacrifice in the desert Sanctuary because gain and wine are not produced by nomadic peoples but must be purchased from caravans.  God did not want worship to be a burden. Once the people took possession of the Promised Land, they gave up their nomadic existence to become farmers who grew both grains and grapes-worship expressed as sacrifice and communion with Yahweh was to be a joyful experience.

Numbers 15:13-16 To Whom the Laws Apply
13 "Every citizen of the country will act in this way whenever he offers food burnt as a smell pleasing to Yahweh; 14 and if an alien residing with you or with your descendants intends to offer food burnt as a smell pleasing to Yahweh, he will do as you do.  15 There will be one law for you, members of the community, and the resident alien alike, a law binding your descendants for ever: before Yahweh you and the alien are no different.'  16 One law, one statute, will apply for you and the alien."'

Question: The definition of a resident alien is first given in Exodus 12:49-50.  According to that passage, what defines a resident alien? Also see Ex 20:10; Lev 17:15; 24:16-22; Num 9:14; Dt 5:14.
Answer: A resident alien is a Gentile who lives permanently within the covenant community of Israel and is bound to observe and keep all the Law, including the Sabbath obligation.  If he submits to circumcision he will also be permitted to eat the Passover, he will be able offer sacrifice and worship to Yahweh, and he will count as a citizen of Israel (Ex 12:48-49).

For the entire history of the people of God, they had been resident aliens in a foreign land: Abraham was a resident alien in a Canaan (Gen 23:4), as were the Israelites in Egypt (Gen 15:13; 46:1, 8; 47:1-12; Ex 2:22).  When the Israelites conquer Canaan they will become the ruling power, but they are called by God to remember their history and to behave with kindness to resident aliens by bringing them into the community, treating them justly and even welcoming them into the covenant.  God's law concerning the treatment of the foreigners living within the boundaries of the yet to be created Israel lays the foundation for the future when all men and women will be welcomed into the covenant of God-a prophecy God gave to the prophet Isaiah in 66:18-23: I am coming to gather every nation and every language.  They will come to witness my glory. [...].  All humanity will come and bow in my presence, Yahweh says.

Numbers 15:17-21: The First-fruits of bread
17 Yahweh spoke to Moses and said, 18 'Speak to the Israelites and say: 19 "When you have entered the country to which I am bringing you, you will set a portion aside for Yahweh when you eat that country's bread.  20 You will set one cake aside as the first-fruits of your dough; you will set this offering aside like the one set aside from your threshing.  20 For all future generations you will set a portion of your dough aside for Yahweh."

Question: What is the fourth additional law that will be observed when the Israelites are living in the Promised Land?
Answer: The law for offering the first-fruits of the bread dough to God (verses 17-21).

Just as the first-born of man and beast belong to God (Ex 13:11), the first-fruits of the soil are consecrated to Yahweh (Ex 22:28; 23:19; 34:26; Lev 2:12; 23:10-17; Dt 18:4; 26:1-2).  According to Numbers 18:12 these gifts, a portion of which is returned in gratitude to Yahweh, will revert to the priests (also see Ez 44:30).  The ritual of the offering, which will become part of the feasts of Firstfruits (see Lev 23:10-17) is described in detail in Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and includes the recitation of a kind of historic profession of faith when presenting the first-fruits at Yahweh's altar (Dt 26:5-10), after which the offerer is instructed: You will then lay them before Yahweh your God, and prostate yourself in the presence of Yahweh your /God.  You must then rejoice in all the good things that Yahweh your God has bestowed on you and your family-you, the Levite and the foreigner living with you (Dt 26:11).  The resident alien who has not submitted to circumcision and has not married within the community (becoming a covenant member), like the Levites, cannot own the land and is therefore dependant upon the Israelites for protection. 

This is the last law in this section that will not be observed until the Israelites are in possession of the Promised Land.

Numbers 15:22-31 Expiation for Unintentional Sins and the Penalty for Intentional Sins
22 "If through inadvertence you fail in any of these orders which Yahweh has given to Moses 23 (whatever orders Yahweh has given you or your descendants through Moses, from the day when Yahweh gave his orders), 24 this is what must be done:  "If it is an inadvertence on the part of the community, the community as a whole will offer a young bull as a burnt offering, as a smell pleasing to Yahweh, with the prescribed accompanying cereal offering and libation, and a he-goat as a sacrifice for sin.  25 The priest will perform the rite of expiation for the entire community of Israelites, and they will be forgiven, since it was an inadvertence.  Once they have brought their offering as food burnt for Yahweh, and have presented their sacrifice for sin before Yahweh to make amends for their inadvertence, 26 the whole community of Israelites will be forgiven, as also the alien residing with them, since the entire people acted by inadvertence.  27 If it is an individual who has sinned by inadvertence, he will offer a yearling kid as a sacrifice for sin.  28 The priest will perform the rite of expiation before Yahweh for the person who has gone astray owing to this sin of inadvertence and, expiation having been made for him, he will be forgiven; 29 whether he is an Israelite citizen or a resident alien, you will have one law for anyone who sins by inadvertence.  30 But the individual who acts deliberately, be he citizen or alien, commits an outrage against Yahweh, and such a man will be outlawed from his people.  31 Since he has treated Yahweh's word with contempt and has disobeyed his order, such a man will be outlawed absolutely and will bear the consequences of his guilt."'

The ritual of sacrifice for the sins of the community and community leaders is found in Leviticus 4:13-26.  The next three laws are a clarification of those previous instructions.  The important point is that expiation and forgiveness can only be offered for unintentional sins and not for sins of outright rebellion against the Law of God.

Question: What are the last three laws included in this section?

A Summary of the Seven Laws (Num 15:1-31):

  1. The law for grain offerings and wine libations with each lamb (verses 3-5).
  2. The law for grain offerings and wine libations with a ram (verse 6).
  3. The law for grain offerings and wine libations with a young bull (verses 7-9).
  4. The law for offering the first-fruits of the bread dough to God (verses 17-21).
  5. The law for the unintentional sin offering of the whole community (verses 22-26).
  6. The law for the unintentional sin offering of an individual (verses 27-29).
  7. The law for imposing exile as the penalty for a defiant sin (verses 30-31).

Not all sins of outright defiance and rebellion against God were sins that required exile.  Some sins were death penalty offenses, like deliberately violating the Sabbath rest (Ex 31:14-15; 35:2) and blaspheming the name of God (Lev 24:16).

Numbers 15:32-36 Case Law: Violation of the Sabbath
32 While the Israelites were in the desert, a man was caught gathering wood on the Sabbath day.  33 Those who caught him gathering wood brought him before Moses, Aaron and the whole community.  34 He was kept in custody, because the penalty he should undergo had not yet been fixed.  35 Yahweh said to Moses, 'This man must be put to death.  The whole community will stone him outside the camp.'  36 The whole community took him outside the camp and stoned him till he was dead, as Yahweh had ordered Moses.

Question: What command of the Law had the man broken by collecting wood on the Sabbath.  See Ex 20:8; 31:12-17; 35:1-3; Lev 24:12.
Answer: There was to be no servile work on the Sabbath.  The covenant people were to rest as God rested from His work of Creation.  The Sabbath obligation was a "sign" of the covenant.

The seventh day Sabbath was consecrated at Creation (Gen 2:2-3), but the observance of the Sabbath obligation was not a command until the Sinai covenant when the Sabbath became a sign of Israel's relationship with God.(3)  Since God consecrated the Sabbath to Himself (Gen 2:3), the Sabbath must also be holy to Israel as a sign of the covenant between God and Israel (Ex 31:13, 15) in the same way that the Sanctuary, its Tabernacle and the sacred furniture were consecrated and were holy to Israel (Ex 30:25-29).  The Sabbath commemorated God's actions in the Creation event and in the creation of the nation of Israel.  In observing the Sabbath, Israel followed Yahweh's example-emulating God as living images of the eternal God (Gen 1:27).  Therefore, profaning the Sabbath and treating it as unholy or common was no less a capital offense than encroaching on/profaning the Sanctuary (Ex 28:35)

Moses was hesitant to pronounce the death sentence against the man. 

Question: As in the case of the man who blasphemed the name of God in Leviticus 24:10-23, why did Moses take the case to God for His divine judgment?  See Ex 31:12-17.
Answer: Only God knows the human heart and can discern the truth behind what appears to be a defiant act against the Law.  According to Exodus 31:12-17, the judgment can be either exile or death depending on the reason for the violation-foolishness, laziness or outright defiance.

Notice that in those cases in which the penalty is exile it is not determined if the exile is for months or years or forever.  The severity of the sentence probably depended on the defiance or the contrition and remorse of the sinner, as in the case of the deliberate defrauding of a covenant member in Numbers 5:5-8 when the perpetrator of the fraud showed remorse.  In such a case, the remorse of the sinner, his public confession of the sin and willingness to make restitution allowed what was an intention sin to be downgraded to a sin that was forgivable under the Law.

Question: Who pronounced the sentence on the man and what was the consequence of his defiance of the Law?
Answer: The penalty for the violation was pronounced by God and carried out by the whole community-he was stoned to death.

This judgment is similar to the death penalty case Moses brought to God concerning the man who blasphemed Yahweh's divine name in Leviticus 24:10-14.  That man also received the death sentence.

For the Old Covenant people of God, obedience to the Law meant "life"-both in the protection the people received from being in communion with God on their life's journey and in the promise of a future eternal redemption through the Redeemer-Messiah.  Violation of the Law led to separation from God and ultimately to spiritual death.  Spiritual death is a much more serious condition than physical death.  The man who violated the Sabbath died as an example to the covenant community of the necessity of living as a holy people who were obedient to the commands of Yahweh.  However, the man's physical death did not condemn him to ultimate separation from God.  Like all men and women who awaited the coming of the Messiah in Sheol (Hades in Greek-the  grave, also known as "Abraham's Bosom), he suffered the purification of his sins and awaited the coming of the promised Redeemer-Messiah (see Wis 1:12-13; 3:1-12; 4:20-5:1-14; Lk 16:19-31; 1 Pt 3:18-20; CCC 633).

After the community carried out the execution of the man who had defiantly violated the Sabbath obligation, God gave the requirement for wearing tassels on a man's outer garment, which is in essence an eighth command of the Law in this section.  Seven is the number of fullness and completion and eight is the number of re-birth, salvation, and redemption.  The wearing of the tassels is a reminder that obedience to the Law is the way to salvation for the covenant people of God.

Numbers 15:37-41 The Command to Wear Tassels with Blue Threads

37 Yahweh spoke to Moses and said, 38 'Speak to the Israelites and tell them, for all generations to come, to put tassels on the hems of their clothes and work a violet thread into the tassel at the hem.  39 You will thus have a tassel, and the sight of it will remind you of all Yahweh's orders and how you are to put them into practice, and not follow the dictates of your own heart and eyes, which have led you to be unfaithful.  40 This will remind you of all my orders; put them into practice, and you will be consecrated to your God.  41 I, Yahweh your God, have brought you out of Egypt, to be your God, I, Yahweh your God.'

The Septuagint translates verse 38: Speak to the children of Israel and thou shall tell them; and let them make for themselves fringes upon the borders of their garments throughout their generations: and ye shall put upon the fringes of the borders a lace of blue.

The Jewish Tanakh translates verse 38 in harmony with Deuteronomy 22:12: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner.

Question: Why are the people commanded to wear tassels with a blue wool thread/cord on the hems of their garments?  See verses 39-41
Answer: The tassels with the blue wool threads/cords were to serve as reminders to keep all the commandments of the Law and to put them into practice in order to maintain the sacred character of the community. 

Numbers 15:37-41 is the Biblical source for the talit, the Jewish outer garment meant to hold the tassels.  These verses are also the fourth Scripture passage of the Shema, the Old Covenant profession of faith.(4)  The Hebrew name for the tassels is tzitzit.  The command in verse 39 is that in looking at the tzitzit the Israelites are to recall/remember (zakar) all the commandments of God and observe them in order to retain the sanctity of the community.  In this passage the Hebrew verb zakar is a verb of action rather than simply of thought (Jewish Study Bible, page 315).(5)  Jewish tradition holds that the blue color of the cord in the tzitzit is a reflection of God's throne, which is described in Scripture as sapphire-colored (Ex 24:10; Ez 1:26; The Jewish Book of Why, vol. I, page 102). 

Most "reminders" in the Old Testament are to remind God to remember Israel:

  1. The high priest's breastplate in Ex 28:12
  2. The silver ransom in Ex 30:16
  3. The jealousy offering of a suspicious husband in Num 5:18
  4. The blowing of the trumpets in Num 10:9
  5. The gold booty offering from the commanders in Num 31:54

However, four reminders are not directed to God but to Israel:

  1. The Passover sacrifice in Ex 12:14
  2. The wearing of prayers on the foreheads, right arms and doorposts in Ex 13:9, 16 and Dt 6:8-9, 11:18(6)
  3. The bronze plating that covered the altar in Num 17:4-5/16:40
  4. The pillars erected after crossing the Jordan River in Josh 4:6-7, 21-24.


Question: What part of the high priest's garments had a blue cord attached to it?  Is there a connection to the blue cord on the tzitzit?  See Ex 28:36-38.
Answer: The blue wool cord that must be attached to the tassels/tzitzit is identical to the blue cord that attaches the golden diadem that reads "Consecrated to YHWH" to the high priest's headdress/miter. The blue cord that attaches the diadem to the high priest's miter is a sign of his holiness and consecration just as the tzitzit on the garments of the Israelites identifies them as separated from the Gentile world and as being holy to the one true God.   

In antiquity, fringes on the hems of Mesopotamian and Canaanite garments were common and are often depicted in the art of these ancient cultures.  The tzitziot (plural) were worn on an Israelite man's outer garment (called a talit) to be a sign that was an important part of the normal daily clothes of the covenant people, unlike the common daily dress of the pagan neighbors, and identifying the Israelites as Yahweh's servants.  Ancient reproductions of this practice show tassels handing from all around the hem of a large cloak or blanket that covered the whole body, but in the Jewish period when the covenant was maintained with Yahweh through the state of Judah/Judea, tassels were almost always confined to the outer garment's four corners (Dt 22:12), and this was undoubtedly the practice in Jesus' time.  The command to wear tassels is repeated in Deuteronomy 6:4.(7)

Question: Do you recall a story in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark where the tzitzit of Jesus' garment played an important role in a healing miracle?  See Mt 9:20-22; Mk 5:25-34.
Answer: The woman who was suffering from a hemorrhage for twelve years was healed when she touched the tzitzit of Jesus' talit.

Modern Jews no longer wear the blue cord in the tassels of the tzitziot of their prayer shawls.  That commandment of the Law was lifted by the rabbis after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.  The sacred blue dye was produced in the Temple, but the recipe was lost when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.(8)

Questions for group discussion:

It is ironic that the Israelites feared death and the Canaanites more than they both loved and feared.  To fear God is an expression which typifies faithfulness to the covenant in living in the obedience of faith so as not to displease God.  To fear displeasing God expresses one's love for God and faith and trust in Him in response to His love and faithfulness to us.

Question: Do you see evidence of this same kind of lack of love and fear of God as the cause of chaos and suffering in modern society?  Give examples. 

Question: Is it spiritually and physically healthy to both love and fear God?  What do these Scripture passages say about love and fear of God: Ex 20:20; Dt 6:2-5; 8:2-6; 10:12-13; Ps 111:9-10; Prov 1:7a; Mt 22:37; 1 Jn 4:7-10, 16

Question: We do not need to wear a distinction sign like the tzitzit to remind us of God's love for us and our obedience to His commandments.  How did God make His love visible to us?  See Jn 3:16; 4:42; Rom 3:24-25; 5:8; 1 Jn 4:9?  How do we become participants in God's love?  See 1 Jn 1:3; 4:10; 5:1-4; 2 Jn 6; Rev 12:17; 14:12; 22:14.

Answer: God made His love visible to us by sending His only beloved Son as the Savior of the world.  We become participants in God's love when we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior by becoming united to His death and Resurrection in the Sacrament of Baptism, in receiving God the Son-Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity-in the Eucharist and in demonstrating our love for God in living in obedience to His commandments and in sharing His love with everyone we meet.


1. The Hebrew idiom "fell on his/their face/faces" is used twenty-five times in the Old Testament: Gen 17:3, 17; 50:1; Lev 9:24; Num 14:5; 16:4, 22; 16:45/17:10; 20:6; Josh 7:6, 10; Judg 13:20; 1 Sam 17:49; 2 Sam 9:6; 14:4; 1 Kng 18:7, 39; Ez 1:28; 3:23; 9:8; 11:3; 43:3; 44:4; Ruth 2:10; Dan 8:17 (Ashley, Numbers, page 247, note 15).

2. For a few examples of deference shown by a lesser party to a superior human in prostrating oneself see Josh 7:6 (same Hebrew idiom as in 14:5); 2 Sam 9:6; 14:4; 1 Kng 1:16; 18:7, and with the words "fell down before" without "on the face" see 2 Sam 18:28.  For examples of prostrating oneself in deference to Yahweh see 1 Kng 18:39; Ez 1:28; 3:23; and for examples of prostrating oneself when making supplication to God see Num 16:4, 22; Josh 7:6, 10; Ez 9:8.  The posture of bowing down was often a simple act of respect as it was when Abraham bowed to his three visitors in Gen 18:2 and when Lot bowed to his two visitors in 19:1.  Bowing down was also appropriate as an act of worship as in 1 Chr 29:20; 2 Chr 29:30 and Neh 8:6.

3. See Ex 20:8-11; 23:12; 31:12-17; 34:21; 35:1-3; Lev 19:3; 23:3; Num 15:32-36; Dt 5:12-15; 2 Chr 36:21; Lk 13:14.

4. The first sentence of the Shema is from Dt 6:4.  The second is a non-Biblical sentence.  The third section, beginning "And thou shalt love ..." is from Dt 11:13-21.  The final section is from Num 15:37-41 (The Jewish Book of Why, vol. II, page360, note 72).

5. Some other examples of the verb zakar used this way can be found in Gen 8:1; 30:22; Ex 12:14 .

6. Prophets from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Mari legitimated their prophetic oracles sent to the king of Mari by including a fringe from their garments as a symbolic way of sending part of themselves.  Archaeologists have also found the imprint of fringes on clay tablets-both are examples that we might describe as a legal "signature" that the information is verified by the individual who has sent it.  Another ancient practice was to include a fringe from the garment of the person sending the message to be presented by his messenger to the receiver of the message.  In this case the fringe not only identified the sender but was also a sign of his loyalty to his Lord.  A similar practice today is the touching of the tzitzit of the Jewish prayer shawl to the Torah when a Jew is called to do the Torah reading in the Synagogue.  As in the ancient practices just mentioned, it is a way of verifying or endorsing the authenticity of the written document and a sign of the reader's pledge of loyalty to Yahweh and obedience to His words in Sacred Scripture. 

7. The modern prayer shawl worn for private prayer and in the Synagogue, called a talit (singular), and the smaller talit, worn daily under a man's shirt by orthodox Jews, no longer have a blue cord for their tzitzit.  Recently, the process for make the blue dye from the murex snail has been rediscovered.  However, the Council of Rabbis in Jerusalem decided that since the dye cannot be made in the ritually pure conditions of the Jerusalem Temple, the command to wear the blue cord in the tassels will continue to be suspended until the dye can be produced within a newly rebuilt and consecrated Jerusalem Temple (see The Jewish Book of Why, vol. I, pages, 99-106).

8. These are little prayer boxes called tefilin, meaning "prayers" (also called phylacteries), that observant Jews still wear strapped to their foreheads and right arm and hand during prayer time.  The prayers that are kept on the doorposts and gates are kept in a small receptacle called a mezuzah.  Usually the Shema, the profession of faith containing three passages from Dt 6:4-9; 11:13-21 and Num 15:37-41, is kept in the mezuzah while the tefilin cubes contain four separate passages from Ex 13:1-10; 11-16; Dt 6:4-9; Dt 11:13-21 (The Jewish Book of Why, vol. I, pages, 99-100, 106-118).

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2010 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.

Catechism references for this lesson:

Num 15:32-35

CCC 633

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2010 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.