Torah Commentary | Numbers

Portion: Torah Portion No. 111
Torah: Numbers 15:1–41
Haftarah: Isaiah 56:1–8
Apostolic: Galatians 3:24–29

Community Solidarity within the Covenant of HaShem

By Tim Hegg

Our parashah is laid out in a very systematic way: the first section (vv 1-10) deals with a reiteration of the sacrifices, an­tici­pating the entrance into the Land and the freedom Israel would have to live a life of worship to HaShem. The second section (vv. 11-16) deals with the relationship of the foreigner (non-Jew) within the commu­nity in terms of this life of worship. The third section (vv. 17-21) contains the command of separation of challah as a terumah (el­evation offering) to HaShem, an on-going act of worship in the life of each family. The fourth section (vv. 22-31) delineates unintentional from intentional transgressions, both corporately and individually, and the manner in which restitution may be made, or the penalty of karat (being “cut off”) is applied. The fifth section (vv. 32-36) gives a specific illustration by way of narrative of an intentional sin by an individual which resulted in his being “cut off” through capital pun­ishment. The sixth and final section (vv. 37-41) gives the mitzvah of tzitzit, a gracious and loving gift of the Father to Israel so that they would guard against transgressing God’s commands, whether un­in­ten­tional or intentional.


Section One: The Sacrifices (1-10)


The opening section deals with the various sacrifices that would define the life of praise and worship of the covenant nation. These sacrifices were the עֹלָה, ‘olah (whole burnt offering), the זֶבַח, zevach (communal sacrifice; festival offerings, also called שְׁלָמִים, sh’lamim, “peace offerings”), the מִנְחָה, minchah (grain offering, which often accompanied the other offerings), and theנֶסֶךְ  nesech (the libation or drink offering). All of these are connected with the primary altar of sacrifice, being defined as אִשֶׁה, ‘isheh, “fire” offerings. They can be communal or individual, and thus the use of נֶדֶר, neder, “vow,” which is related to the “votive offering,” meaning that one vows to set apart a given animal or grain for the offering, and thus the offering consists both of the vow itself and the completion of the vow by actually offering the sacrifice.

These offerings are listed together here because they describe in broad strokes the life of the covenant people. They describe the basic perspective that (1) all things come from the hand of the Almighty, and therefore our sacrifices acknowledge that He is the giver and sustainer of our lives; (2) our lives are lived unto Him, and thus those events in our lives which bring us joy and gladness are reminders to give Him thanksgiving; (3) He is good and gracious, and thus He deserves our on-going praise, regardless of current circumstances; and (4) since we are His people, and He is our King, we strive to follow His commandments and live in a way that honors Him. Thus, “when you enter the Land” is an over-arching phrase which char­ac­terizes the life of His covenant people as He intends—nurtured and protected by Him in the Land where His Presence resides. Thus the sacrifices are a “soothing aroma”  (øÅéçÇ ðÄçÉçÇ, reiach nichoach) to Adonai. Not only are the covenant people satisfied and content when living in close fellowship with HaShem, but in some mysterious way, this arrangement also gladdens the heart of the Almighty!

These basic principles are derived from the combined elements of the sacrifice. The innocent, clean animal whose life is taken, must always remind us of the fact that our adoption into the covenant peo­ple of God is based upon payment of a price, the requirement of our redemption. God is the One who desires to dwell in the midst of His people, yet He cannot diminish His holiness to do this. As such, He provides the atonement through means of a substitute. In all of the sacrifices, this stands out as a primary reality. Secondly, the fact that in some of the sacrifices there is participation by consuming the meat or grain (whether by all or by the priests as the representatives of the people) indicates the on-going viability of the covenant. God and man “sit at table” together and enjoy the fellowship for which man was created. Thirdly, the addition of the libation or “drink” offering (always of wine) is symbolic of the joy that this arrangement affords. While man, affected by his rebellion against God carried in his own fallen nature, may think that joy and happiness comes from his own endeavors and abilities, in reality, true and lasting joy comes from his fellowship with the Almighty. This truth is borne out continually in the metaphor of the sacrifice, and stood as a lesson for Israel, if they would receive it. Genuine happiness, whether communally or individually, is found in the covenant relationship with the Creator.

Section Two: The Foreigner (11-16)


Such a relationship of covenant fellowship opens the question of how one enters the covenant. The second section of our parashah deals with this question by way of clear instructions that require full unity of all covenant members. There is no distinction among cov­enant members, for the same commandments of the sacrifice apply equally to all, “native born” (אֶזְרַח, ‘ezrach) and “sojourner” (âÅר, ger) alike. To emphasize the unity of the covenant people, a kal v’chomer scenario is established by specifically mentioning “the foreigner” (גֵר, ger, further defined as “one who sojourns,” גוּר, gur with the people of Israel). If the same statutes for offering a sacrifice apply to the ger, then surely they apply as well to all native born with­out distinction.

The text is very clear regarding the non-native born who has attached himself to Israel: “just as you do so he shall do” (כַּאֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשׂוּ יַעֲשֶׂה). Some might conclude that this only has to do with the giving of sacrifices, that is, that in the realm of the sacrifices the non-Jew must follow the same rules as the Jew, but that in other areas of Torah obedience, the non-Jew is not required to follow the Torah in the same manner as the native born. However, our text clearly teaches that all of the commandments are the privilege and responsibility of all covenant members. Verses 15-16 make this explicit, and the following context even more so:


As for the assembly (הַקָּהָל), there shall be one statute for you and for the ger who sojourns with you, a perpetual statute throughout your gen­erations; as you are, so shall the ger be before Adonai.  There is to be one Torah and one ordinance for you and for the ger who sojourns with you [תּåÉøÈä אַçÇú וּîÄשׁÀפּÈè àÆçÈã éÄäÀéÆä ìÈëÆí åÀìÇגּÅø äÇגּÈø àÄתּÀëÆíÓ].’” (Num 15:15–16)

The addition of “as you are, so shall the ger be before Adonai” (כָּכֶם כָּגֵר, kachem kager) is very clear. What does it mean to be “before Adonai?” This is sacrificial language, for the sacrifice is offered “before Adonai,” and “before Adonai” is the characteristic phrase to define the locus of the priests’ activity: they minister (or serve, עָבַד, ‘avad) “before Adonai.” Now this takes into consideration far more than the restricted laws of sacrifice (i.e., the animal or grain brought, the manner in which the sacrifice is offered, the various quantities of grain and wine that are added, etc.). It also must include the whole range of laws relating to ceremonial purity which render the worshipper fit to bring the sacrifice in the first place. “As you are, so is the ger” is a comprehensive de­scription of life lived out “before Adonai.” The soujourner, the ger who attaches himself to Adonai and thus to the covenant people must abide by all of the covenant stipulations if he is to participate in the high-point of the covenant, that is, the offering of sacrifices. Moreover, the offering of sacrifices also deals with one’s own heart and soul before Adonai. We discover in Isaiah’s words that bringing a sacrifice while engaged in a life of idolatry is an abomination to HaShem (Is 1:11–13). Thus all covenant members were re­quired to love Adonai with all one’s heart, the expression of which included the bringing of the sacrifices. The individual expression of alle­giance to God, and praise for His covenant friendship, is thus directly expressed in the next section of our parashah.


Section Three: Separation of Challah (17-21)


The separation of challah (a small, round loaf of bread, cp. the Mishnah Order Chalah) is next mentioned as the fitting expression of the covenant members to their Master who has sustained their lives through His kindness. “You shall lift up a termuah (elevation offering) to Adonai when you eat of the lechem of the Land.” Like the previous sacrifices, this termuah is an offering to Adonai, and must therefore include the native born as well as the ger. This is a “first fruits” offering—an acknowledgement that all that comes forth from the Land is a gift from God. It is fitting, then, that He should receive the praise before the food is eaten in order that He should be given His rightful place as Giver and Sustainer.

The modern tradition of separating a “pinch” of challah reflects our willingness to remember this vital truth. It is a “memorial” portion, a physical act that reminds us of this eternal truth. That this is to be done “throughout your generations” would indicate that it is proper whether in the Land or not. And we should note that there is no in­di­cation that this “offering” was done at the altar. While the context may imply this, it is not explicitly stated in the text. We may consider the very real possibility that the stipulations for this “offering” were given in such a way as to make this an “offering” available wherever one baked the bread and ate it.

Once again, the “rituals” of life (for eating is the most common reality of our lives), given to the covenant people by their King, afford them the constant reminder of their covenant relationship with the Almighty.



Section Four: Unintentional and Intentional Sin (22-31)


The designation “unintentional” with regard to sin has been variously understood. The Sages give two suggestions: either the people or person is unaware of the laws governing a particular situation, or they are unaware that they were breaking a law, even though they know the law existed. It is easy to offer an example of the first suggestion: e.g., perhaps a person simply did not know the amount of oil to add to a given offering, and thus added none or an insufficient amount. The second suggestion, that a person was aware of the law but not aware that he was breaking it, could be illustrated by some­one who ate the prohibited fat (çÅìÀá, cheilev, which was the fat surrounding certain organs of the animal) thinking that it was ordinary fat (ùÑåÌîÇï, shuman) which is permitted.((cf. m.Hodayot 2:1-2; m.Kritot 4:1f.))

However, as we noted earlier in our reading of Leviticus, the “unintentional sins” listed there clearly include those that involve some form of premeditation (such as stealing). How should we un­der­stand the designation “unintentional?” The word itself is formed on the verb שָׁגַג, shagag, the related form being שֶׁגָגָה, shegagah. Its basic meaning is “to error” or “to go astray,” and can designate sim­ple “unacceptable behavior.” It can even be used of hasty words (Qoh 5:5). It appears to be a word that is very general, describing any sinful behavior. But we may understand its use here by noting the con­trasting term used to designate “defiance.” The Hebrew for this is בְּיָד רָמָה, b’yad ramah, “with a high hand.” In the first case, the sin is des­ig­nated as an “error,” “a wrong doing.” But in the second, the element of full, open rebellion is the issue. “With a high hand” means without any remorse or repentance, or with a continuation in the trans­gression without any evidence of a willingness to turn from the sin and cease from doing it. Thus, the contrast is between a person or a group (for the text indicates both a corporate and individual application) who comes to realize their sin and turns from it, seeking restitution with God and those sinned against, and those who knowingly sin and persist in that sin. While there is a way of rec­on­ciliation for the former, there is no forgiveness for the latter. Hardened re­bellion against God draws the punishment of karat, being cut off from the covenant people.

Once again, these laws of restitution through sacrifice on the one hand, and the laws of karat on the other, equally apply to native born and ger. The text is explicit:

You shall have one law for him who does anything un­in­ten­tionally, for him who is native among the sons of Israel and for the ger who sojourns among them. But the person who does anything defiantly, whether he is native or a ger, that one is blaspheming Adonai; and that person shall be cut off from among his people. (Num 15:29–30)

It will be helpful for us to note the words that are used to de­scribe the one “with a high hand,” that is, with defiance against Adonai. First, the defiance is seen by the fact that this one persists in disobeying the commandments of HaShem. Note v. 31:

Because he has despised the word of Adonai and has broken His commandment, that person shall be completely cut off; his guilt will be on him. (Num 15:31)

In despising the “word of Adonai,” he has directly raised his fist in the face of God. The Hebrew word “despise” is בָּזַה, bazah, which can also mean “to plunder.” The idea here might well be that the person has “plundered” the word of God in the sense of not willingly submitting to it, but rather viewing it as “conquered” by his own desires and actions. He has divested the word of God of its true meaning, and twisted it to support his own willful sin. This is called “blas­phemy” against the Almighty.

Note the context of the sin of the “high hand.” The text is clear: he has “broken His commandment.” The willing persistence to disobey God is the essence of rebellion, and there is no forgiveness for re­bellion apart from repentance of it. The only way to receive the for­giveness that God so graciously affords is to surrender to Him. All who continue in their “high hand” against the Almighty will ultimately feel the sting of His justice.

It seems clear that our text (and others which parallel it) formed the basis for the severe discipline of excommunication in the Ap­os­tolic halachah. Rebellion against the commands and ways of God proved a person to be outside of the covenant, and therefore without right to remain within the community of the covenant people. Of course, unless there is a recognition of the value and necessity of a covenant community, the threat of being “cut off” from it presents very little (if any) motivation for turning from one’s sin.


Fifth Section: Example of a High Handed Person (32-36)


The fifth section of our parashah narrates the well-known story of a man who went out to collect sticks on the Sabbath. Often used by opponents of the Sabbath to demonstrate the lack of compassion exhibited in “the Law,” this story is no doubt given to illustrate the stipulations just described. Here we have, apparently, an example of the “sin of a high hand.”  Since it follows immediately upon the instructions of what should be done to someone who acts defiantly against HaShem, it seems fully warranted to interpret it in this light.

We should therefore presume that the activity of this man as de­scribed here in our text, was not a one-time incident, but was only illustrative of this man’s defiance against the Almighty. Given clear instructions regarding the Sabbath, the man decided to act in re­bellion against God for whatever reason. Either he considered the word of God to be less than true, or he had decided that the word of God was not something to which he needed to submit. One could well imagine that his picking up of sticks was for building a fire, perhaps for cooking. But these are additional thoughts. Clearly, by whatever means, he trans­gressed the Sabbath laws, and in so doing, demonstrated his re­bellion against the Almighty. Furthermore, the narrative is completely silent as to his response when caught committing the transgression. There is no hint of remorse or repentance. As a root of bitterness (the breeding ground of rebellion) within the community, he posed the danger of attracting others to his rebellion. As such, the penalty of karat was administered, not merely by the leaders of the people, but by the whole congregation in general. The root of bitterness, if allowed to remain, “defiles many” (Hebrews 12:15, cf. Deut 29:18).


Sixth Section: Tzitzit (37-41)


The final section of our parashah gives the mitzvah of tzitzit (צִיצִת). Once again, if studied within the context of the parashah, the giving of the tzitzit at this point must be linked with the general flow of the narrative. If the life of the covenant people is one of willing, constant submission to HaShem and His ways, then the giving of a  reminder of His commandments is a kind and benevolent gesture on the part of our Father. He knows that when we walk in His ways, it will be well with us, and the joy and happiness which He designed for us to share will, in fact, be ours (cf Gen 18:19).

The exact manner in which the tzitzit are to be worn, and how they are to be tied, or even what they look like, is not described in the text. Apparently the people were familiar with them, so that the sim­ple commandment was sufficient for carrying out the will of HaShem. Deuteronomy 22:12 describes them as גְּדִלִים, g’dilim, usually trans­lated “tassels,” though the word appears to be related to âÌÈדוֹל, gadōl, “great” or “big.” In the Deuteronomy text, it clearly says that the tassels are to be worn “on the four corners of your garment,” a statement that informed the rabbinic halachah regarding tzitzit.

Our parashah describes a “thread of blue” (תְּכֵלֶת, t’cheilet) which is to be part of the tassel on each corner, and the text indicates that “it” would constitute: וְהָיָה לְכֶם לְצִיצִת, v’hayah l’chem l’tzitzit. The fact that the verb is masculine singular might well indicate that the thread of blue is what ultimately constitutes the tzitzit. This thread of blue is therefore vital if the mitzvah is to function as God intends. For the thread of blue may very likely symbolize Yeshua, the Royal Priest (t’cheilet was used in the garments of the priest and in the Tabernacle/Temple), who not only explains the manner in which HaShem intends the commandments to be lived out, but also em­powers His people to keep the commandments through the Ruach who dwells within. The tzitzit, then, are the original symbol of “what would Yeshua do!”

Here, as often, the parashah we have studied points us to Yeshua, the “goal of the Torah” (Romans 10:4). Our study has reminded us that the goal of all of the commands of God is that He might dwell among His people—that He might have close friendship with the people He has created as His chosen treasure. May we strive all the more to know and appreciate His presence among us.



In the beginning

Genesis 1:1-6:8


In the beginning God…
Acceptable Worship
List of Generations

Tim Hegg

President / Instructor

Tim graduated from Cedarville University in 1973 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Music and Bible, with a minor in Philosophy. He entered Northwest Baptist Seminary (Tacoma, WA) in 1973, completing his M.Div. (summa cum laude) in 1976. He completed his Th.M. (summa cum laude) in 1978, also from NWBS. His Master’s Thesis was titled: “The Abrahamic Covenant and the Covenant of Grant in the Ancient Near East”. Tim taught Biblical Hebrew and Hebrew Exegesis for three years as an adjunct faculty member at Corban University School of Ministry when the school was located in Tacoma. Corban University School of Ministry is now in Salem, OR. Tim is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Society of Biblical Literature, and has contributed papers at the annual meetings of both societies. Since 1990, Tim has served as one of the Overseers at Beit Hallel in Tacoma, WA. He and his wife, Paulette, have four children, nine grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.