The prepared sermon text for today’s message at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York, is below. The sermon audio is available here at this link. This sermon brings together a number of things that I’ve been learning over the past few years, which I had not understood before. This sermon on a collection of laws after a major transgression addresses what happens when God gives the law to a rebellious people and what it accomplishes. It is also about what the law cannot do and thus what we need God to do for us. The sermon title is a bit of a teaser though, because I’ll be talking about it more next Sunday when I’m introducing the next passage immediately after this collection of laws: the southside rebellion. Next Sunday’s passage is Numbers 16:1-40.
Maybe one of the strangest things for modern readers of the Torah of Moses is how you might be reading along in a story and then seemingly out of nowhere there is a collection of laws. Our passage today is one of those collections of laws. As I have been studying the passages, preparing the sermons, and preaching them for the last few weeks, I’ve been on the edge of my seat for a lot of it. I mean the people of Israel are finally going somewhere as they out on their first three days’ journey. Then they arrived at a place to camp and there was the episode of grumbling about manna. And YHWH showed them that He can provide an abundance of meat by giving them enough quail to eat meat for a whole month and a bunch of those with a craving for meat died in a plague while the meat was still stuck in their teeth. Then we had the episode where Miriam and Aaron grumble against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married. The fact that she was a Cushite suggests that she had darker skin than the Hebrew people did, so Miriam’s punishment was a skin disease that made her skin like snow. This episode delayed the next for another week. Then YHWH told Moses to send a chief from each tribe to spy out the land of Canaan and bring back some fruit. To carry a single cluster of grapes back took two men carrying it on a pole. Indeed, the land was flowing with milk and honey. But ten of these scouts gave a bad report about the land to the people saying it “is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim.” The Nephilim were a race of giants and these ten scouts said that they felt like grasshoppers by comparison (Num 13:32-33). And this bad report led the people to grumble again about how much better it would be to have died earlier—when they were back in Egypt—or to die in the wilderness—than to die by the sword in the land of Canaan. Then Moses told them that they would get their wish because they would all die in the wilderness over the next forty years. All of them, that is, except Caleb and Joshua who gave a good report about the land. It is a really engaging story. But now, we have this set of laws. I read a really long book by John Sailhamer about the Torah of Moses. In it he argues that the Biblical books of Moses we have are a 2nd edition. The most obvious example of something added is the account at the end of Deuteronomy about the death of Moses. Another example is the comment from the passage about Miriam and Aaron’s grumbling against Moses where it says, “Now the man Moses was very meek, more meek than all people who were on the face of the earth” (Num 12:3). Of course, that is not something that a meek person would write about themselves. It is even more curious when you think about it because Moses won’t get to enter the Promised Land. I mean, we all know, as Jesus would later say, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth/land” (Matt 5:5). Now without going too far off topic, we can safely say that Moses is inheriting it with us for the Promised Land points to something better that he will get with us. But the reason I mention Sailhamer’s book is that he notes that there is a deliberate strategy in the Torah of interest to us. This strategy is to put collections of laws after stories with major transgressions. Sailhamer says the apostle Paul was speaking of this strategy in Galatians 3:19, “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions.” So Numbers tells us about a major transgression and then gives us a collection of laws. Thus with these stories of grumbling fresh in our minds, let’s see what laws were added in Numbers 15.
These laws are God’s rebuke of a rebellious people who would rather go back to Egypt or enter the land of Canaan without Him than to follow Him.
The people of Israel were rebellious because of their unbelief. By unbelief, we don’t mean that they didn’t believe anything. But rather, we mean by unbelief that Israel believed YHWH wanted to do awful things to them. They didn’t believe that God is good—all the time—all the time—God is good. Most of the people of Israel didn’t trust in YHWH. Specifically, in context, they didn’t trust YHWH to give them a good land flowing with milk and honey. It was that lack of faith in YHWH that made them readily accept the irrational majority report of the scouts that the land devours its inhabitants and yet somehow has people of great height and even giants living in it. The report didn’t make sense since a land that devours its inhabitants wouldn’t be able to sustain and nourish strong giants. But they were quick to receive it as truth because it supported what they wanted to believe. This has been true in our American political climate for a long time—people will believe a bad report because it supports what they want to believe. Indeed, people will believe it regardless of the credibility of the accuser or the accused, the irrationality of the accusation or the defense, or even the evidence that suggests a different conclusion is more plausible. My point isn’t to make a comment on any given situation in the news—both parties are guilty of it. People believe what they want to believe. So too back then. The people of Israel wanted to believe that YHWH had it out for them and that the Promised Land was a fairy tale. So when they heard a bad report about the land, they believed it even though it didn’t make any sense that YHWH would deliver them out of Egypt only for some kind of sadistic purpose like killing them in any number of horrible ways. And when they heard a good minority report from Caleb and Joshua that they didn’t want to believe, they didn’t believe it and were ready to stone Caleb and Joshua to death. They would rather go back to Egypt or go into the land of Canaan without God than to trust Him to give them what He promised.
Thus these laws act as an implicit rebuke of Israel’s unbelief by describing sacrifices that would be possible because the Promised Land is a good land.
The first of these laws concerns a covenant meal that YHWH would have with His people in the Promised Land. The people sat down to eat such a meal with their Lord. Usually it was a freewill offering; that is, they were under no obligation to do it, but they wanted to do it. If they were under an obligation to do it, then that was often because they had willingly made a vow. Another time they would do this was at the appointed feasts. Such a meal meant that the land had to be good. It was even to be a balanced meal with meat, grain, and drink. The more meat you brought, the more grain and drink you brought too. Duguid, in his commentary, explains it in terms of serving-sizes from small, to regular, to super-size, saying, that with each increase in the size of the entree the size of the side-orders increased too. The fact that people would not only bring such offerings for the appointed feasts but also when they didn’t need to do so, suggests that the land had to be good. That section is Numbers 15:1-16.
The next section of laws has to do with offering to YHWH the first dough. This offering is a tribute that the people would bring to YHWH their king in a good land where grains grew abundantly. The firstfruits principle was that the king gave the people this good land, so they gave the king the firstfruits of everything it produced. Duguid points out that this law about the first dough brings the principle home. YHWH already would get the firstfruits of the grains on threshing floor and the firstfruits of the vats of wine. Those could be done about once a year without a second thought. But now YHWH claims the first cake out of every batch you bake. Every time you baked bread, the first loaf went for the priests as your gift to YHWH. It was a constant reminder at home that your daily bread came from YHWH. That section is Numbers 15:17-21.
The third section of laws discusses atonement for sins. Some sins could be atoned for by the sacrifice of animals and some required the death of the offender. But again, they would have an abundance of animals for such sacrifices because the Promised Land that God was giving them was a good land. That section is Numbers 15:22-31. (These laws are God’s rebuke of a rebellious people who would rather go back to Egypt or enter the land of Canaan without Him. But these laws don’t just rebuke a people who deserved to be rebuked. These laws do more than that. Paul tells us exactly how much more in Romans 5:20. Don’t worry if you haven’t noticed this on your own before, someone had to point it out to me too. But that verse understands another major reason for putting these laws after this major transgression. Paul says,)
“The law came in to increase the trespass” (Rom 5:20a).
First of all, God gave these laws to a rebellious people who didn’t want to follow Him in order to increase the trespass. The final section in the collection is the law that they had to make tassels on the corners of their garments so that when they looked at the tassels they would “remember all the commandments of YHWH, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God.” This section is Numbers 15:37-41. There is nothing wrong with this law. As Paul would say, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom 7:12). Indeed, if you could keep this law and every other point of the law, then you would be righteous before God. Again Paul says, “It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Rom 2:13). But think about what will happen when you give such a law to a rebellious people and recall the verse we said, “The law came in to increase the trespass.” In other words, when you give laws to rebels what happens is the trespass increases . Of course, that is exactly what happens. The next passage after this law is the story of the southside rebellions of Dathan and Abiram, and Korah, which we will look at next Sunday.
The law increased the trespass this way: it gave Israel knowledge of sin, aroused their sinful passions, and brought God’s wrath. Paul said, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20). That’s step one, the law gave Israel knowledge of sin. Again it isn’t a flaw in the law—the law is good—the problem is what sin does with the law. Paul says, “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’” (Rom 7:7). Again, step one in how the law increased the trespass is that it gave Israel knowledge of sin. Paul also said, “For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death” (Rom 7:5). The end of that hints at step three, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The law increased the trespass by (step 1) giving Israel knowledge of sin and (step 2) arousing their sinful passions. Again, Paul says about the law, “You shall not covet,” “But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.” He says, it isn’t the law’s fault, “It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.” And earlier Paul said, “For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression” (Rom 4:15). That’s step 3—the law brings wrath. And often God’s wrath was to give them what they wanted and craved. He gave them over to their sinful passions (cf. Rom 1:26ff). Thus sin reigned in death (Rom 5:21). Thus the law came in to increase the trespass. It did this by giving them knowledge of sin, arousing their sinful passions, and bringing God’s wrath. (The only section of our passage today that we didn’t mention yet was the execution of the Sabbath-breaker. It is a case study in the very thing that I’m describing. Here was a rebellious person who heard the law, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). Thus now he has knowledge of sin and his sinful passions aroused by the law led him to gather sticks on the Sabbath day. (I promise that I’ll say more about this next week because it is worse than just picking up sticks sounds, but stick with me here.) The law brought wrath and in this case that wrath was that the whole congregation of Israel stoned him to death with stones. He wanted to die in the wilderness and he got what he wanted. And that’s the point I’m trying to make here, the reason for placing these laws here is to increase the trespass so that their sin will reach a climax and they’ll be dead. There’s forty years of this ahead.
“But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom 5:20b).
This abounding grace is clear from the beginning of these laws when YHWH tells Moses to say to the people, “When you come into the land you are to inhabit, which I am giving you….” (Num 15:1-2). With my usual caveat about how the tribe of Levi doesn’t count in these numbers, let me say that this passage comes right after YHWH swore that only two men of the other twelve tribes would live to enter the Promised Land. And still, YHWH says, “When you come into the land you are to inhabit, which I am giving you.” This isn’t just an expression of grace, it is an invitation to believe in YHWH. These laws even talk about how the same law applies to the sojourner in the land as applies to the native-born people of Israel. That’s not something to miss here – there will one day be native-born Israelites – there will one day be Hebrew people born in the land of Canaan. Even the last section in this collection of laws speaks of how they would make these tassels throughout their generations. Indeed, the story of Israel isn’t finished. This evil generation would pass away, but the next generation would enter the Promised Land by faith and there would be many more generations to come.
The law has its uses, but the gospel is that we are righteous-by-faith in Jesus Christ. If many of these laws had been given to a different generation—one that trusted in YHWH—then they could have been a blessing. After all, those who trust in God want to please Him and the law shows us what is pleasing to God. The effect of these laws on Joshua and Caleb would have been to encourage them and for them to grow in faith because they say that the nation of Israel will live in the Promised Land. It is even possible that there were people in that generation who repented and believed because of the gospel promises in our passage. Yes, the law has its uses. We even need it to put us to death. But the law cannot make us right with God. The law cannot give us new life. Indeed, as Paul said, “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom 3:28). The one who is righteous-by-faith in Christ shall live (cf. Rom 1:16). The law cannot do what we need—not because of any flaw in the law but because there is a flaw in us called sin . We’ve inherited this flaw from the original rebels, Adam and Eve, and the holy law of God brings this flaw out in us. But, to quote Paul again, “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:3-4). He accomplished this by having Jesus Christ crucified outside the camp while we were still lawbreakers and rebels. Now that is grace abounding. Hallelujah. Amen.