I’ve mentioned before that all the way through the book of Numbers it alternates between narrative and law. So, chapters 1 to 4 contained the narrative of how they took the census. That was followed by chapters 5 and 6 which contained a number of laws and instructions about various matters. Then chapters 7 to 9 contained the narrative about what happened when they set up the Tabernacle. That was followed by the first half of chapter 10 which contained instructions about the silver trumpets which they had to make.
Then we have the narrative about how they set off on their journey to the Promised Land and how they rebelled against the Lord. And that’s followed by chapter 15 which contains these laws about sacrifices and other related matters.
So, you have narrative followed by law. And the laws very often relate to the narrative. And so, on this occasion, after the people rebelled, the Lord went on to speak to them about how to atone for their sins and how obedience to him was vital. Since they had failed to obey the Lord in chapters 13 and 14, they needed to be reminded that obedience was essential.
However, the laws in chapter 15 are also an encouragement for the people, because according to verse 1 these laws would come into force whenever they entered the Promised Land. The Lord was angry with that generation and he swore that they would not enter his rest. However, he promised that their children would enter the land of rest. And so, to re-assure them that he would keep his promise and bring them into the land, he gave them these laws about what was required of them whenever they entered the Promised Land.
Verses 1 to 16
Let’s turn now to the text. The laws contained in verses 1 to 16 were to take into effect when the Israelites entered the Promised Land; and these laws concerned offerings made by fire to the Lord. For such sacrifices, as well as bringing an animal to the Lord, they were to bring a grain and drink offering. The size of the grain and drink offering was related to the size of the animal. So, when offering a lamb, they were to offer a grain offering consisting of one tenth of an ephah of flour; and a drink offering consisting of a quarter of a hin of wine. When offering a ram, they were to offer a grain offering consisting of two tenths of an ephah of flour; and a drink offering consisting of a third of a hin of wine. When offering a young bull, they were to offer a grain offering consisting of three tenths of an ephah of flour; and a drink offering consisting of half a hin of wine.
According to verse 13 every native-born Israelite was to follow these laws. Furthermore, according to verses 14 to 16, any alien or foreigner living among them must do exactly the same.
What was the purpose of the grain and drink offering? According to verse 10, these offerings would create ‘an aroma pleasing to the Lord’. So, as the grain offering was burned on the altar along with the animal sacrifice — and presumably the wine was also consumed by the flames — the Lord would — in a sense — smell the aroma and be pleased with it and with his people who offered it to him. Instead of being angry with them, he would be pleased with them.
Furthermore, the fact that they would have grain and wine to offer like this speaks of how the Lord would prosper them and give them an abundance of good things to enjoy in the Promised Land.
Verses 17 to 21
In verses 17 to 21 the Lord commanded the future generations to bring an offering to the Lord from the first of their ground meal or dough. So, after the Lord prospered them and they began to enjoy the crops that grew in the fields, they were to take some of the dough they made and bake a cake which they would offer to the Lord. The commentators believe they had to do this every time they baked some bread and that the cakes were given to the priests as a means of providing for their daily needs.
Verses 22 to 31
In verses 22 to 31 we have instructions about the offerings they should sacrifice to the Lord for unintentional sins. First of all, from verse 24 to verse 26, there are instructions for what to do when the whole community sins against the Lord unintentionally in order to atone for their sin. From verse 27 to 29 there are instructions for what to do when an individual sins unintentionally in order to atone for the person’s sin.
You might recall that the word ‘atonement’ can either mean ‘to wipe clean’ or ‘to pay a ransom’. Here the idea of wiping clean is more prominent, because in both cases they’re to bring a sin offering, which was also known as a purification offering and it symbolised how the stain of sin is washed away by the shed blood of the sacrifice.
An unintentional sin is a sin which someone committed by mistake or in ignorance. However, when they realise their guilt, they guilty person is filled with sorrow and shame and want to confess it to the Lord. In that case, here’s the procedure they’re to follow in order to be cleansed from the guilt of their sins.
However, according to verses 30 and 31, anyone who sins ‘defiantly’ must be cut off. To sin defiantly means to sin deliberately and without remorse. Such a person — according to verse 30 blasphemes or reviles the Lord who is holy and who commands his people to be holy. Such a person — according to verse 31 — despises the word of the Lord and treats the word of the Lord with contempt. And such a person therefore breaks the commands of the Lord and fails to do them. Such a person — the Lord decrees in verse 31 — must be cut off. His guilt is not taken away, but remains on him; and he must die because of his wilful rebellion.
Verses 32 to 36
In the following verses we read about a man who sinned defiantly, because although the Lord made clear that his people must keep the Sabbath Day holy by resting on it, this man went out to gather wood for a fire, which was a form of work. They brought the man to Moses and Aaron and to the whole assembly. Because they weren’t sure what to do, they sought the will of the Lord, who confirmed that the people must stone the man to death. And so, they took him outside the camp, so the camp would not become defiled, and they stoned him.
Verses 37 to 41
It’s better to prevent sin than to punish it. And so, in verses 37 to 41 the Lord commanded the people to put tassels on their clothes to remind them that they must obey the Lord. The tassels were to contain a blue cord. It’s not clear why there needed to be a blue cord in each tassel, but the ark of the covenant was wrapped in blue cloth; the curtains of the tabernacle were blue; the priests’ clothes also contained the colour blue. Therefore it’s possible that blue signified holiness; and so, the tassels marked with blue reminded them they were to be holy people, so that instead of going after the lusts of their own hearts and eyes, they must obey the Lord. Instead of giving in to their own sinful desires, they were to do the will of the Lord. And they were to do the will of the Lord, because he was God their Saviour, who had brought them out of Egypt and who had entered into a covenant with them, whereby they had promised to do everything he commanded.
We too must obey the Lord. And we must obey him out of gratitude for all that he has done for us, because he has delivered us from our sin and misery by his Son who promises to lead his people to the Promised Land of Eternal Life. And so, out of gratitude, we should seek to obey the Lord as we make our way to the Promised Land. And the good news is that under the terms of the new covenant, we don’t need to rely on tassels to remind us of God’s laws, because he writes his law on our hearts, hearts which have been renewed by his Spirit. And he gives us his Spirit who works in us to sanctify us and to make us more and more holy, so that we will become more and more willing and able to do God’s will here on earth. And so, having God’s law written on our hearts — hearts that have been renewed by his Spirit — we’re able to say ‘no’ to our sinful desires more and more, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives.
So, under the old covenant, the people relied on tassels to remind them to keep God’s law. But under the new covenant, we have the law written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
And when we do sin, we can give thanks that under the new covenant, God promises to remember our sins no more, because all our sins are covered by the blood of Christ; and there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ. God presented him as the atoning sacrifice for sin, a fragrant offering to God. And now, through faith in him, we are justified which means we’re pardoned by God and accepted as righteous in his sight.
Under the terms of the old covenant, sacrifices could be offered for unintentional sins. But when the people sinned defiantly — like this man who gathered wood on the Sabbath; or even like the whole community when they rebelled against the Lord in chapter 14 — when the people sinned defiantly there was no provision under the terms of the old covenant for sacrifice or for atonement. Instead those who were guilty of such sins had to be cut off. And so, the man who broke the Sabbath was stoned; and the Israelites who rebelled in Numbers 14 were told they would die in the wilderness. But under the new covenant — established in the blood of Christ — there is full forgiveness for all who trust in the Saviour.
Now, the New Testament does issue a warning. It warns in Hebrews 10 that there is no forgiveness for those who reject the Lord Jesus Christ. If we reject him, then we will fall into the hands of the living God, and that is a dreadful thing. However, if we believe in him, then we’re pardoned for all our sins. And through him we can come before the Lord with confidence to pray to him; and one day we will come before the Lord to be with him for ever.
In closing, think of the Lord’s trial before the Sanhedrin in Mark 14. Do you remember how they accused him of blasphemy? In other words, they accused him of sinning defiantly against the Lord God Almighty. And so, they decided he had to be cut off and killed.
But we believe that when he was cut off and killed, he was not cut off and killed for his own sins — because he had none — but he was cut off and killed for our sins. He was cut off and killed so that all who believe in him are pardoned by God and receive the hope of everlasting life in the Promised Land to come.