This whole section, these four laws put next to each other is a riddle … Each of them was probably an actual law in the life of ancient Israel, but the author of the Torah has selected stories, poems, and laws and arranged them in sequence to communicate a literary message through the cycling of themes. The reason these laws are here is because they communicate something within this larger section of Numbers as it participates in the larger themes of the Torah.
In part one (00:00-9:03), Tim and Jon review our opening conversation on the scroll of Numbers (called “In the Wilderness” in the Hebrew Bible for its setting between Mount Sinai and the promised land).
Yahweh gives Israel laws and instructions for how to dwell safely in his presence, and he also charges the tribe of Levi with the special duties of the firstborn. Their duties involve taking care of God’s dwelling place, the tabernacle, and performing sacrifices and offerings that continually cleanse Israel from sin and ritual impurity.
At this point in the story, we’re already growing accustomed to the repeating melody we first encountered in Genesis 1-9: When a firstborn is chosen for special duties in the Eden space where God dwells, something is about to go wrong. In this case, the narrator tells us that something is wrong through four odd, seemingly unrelated laws.
In part two (9:03-22:31), Tim and Jon dive into Numbers 5, which opens with Yahweh’s instructions to send anyone in a ritually impure state to live outside of Israel’s camp. At this point, Yahweh has consecrated Israel’s camp as his dwelling place—an Eden space. While being ritually impure is not morally wrong, it represents coming in contact with death, something that only belongs outside of Eden. The language here in Numbers 5:1-4 mimics Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve are “sent away” from Eden.
The next section of instructions in Numbers 5 continues to remind readers of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. Here, Yahweh tells the Israelites to do the opposite of what Adam and Eve did when they sinned (blame each other) and instead confess their sins and make restitution for any harm they’ve done to one another. Confession and restitution prevent the cycle that began in Genesis 3 from continuing. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve’s hidden sin perpetuates and escalates with their children, but confession and restitution stop the cycle of sin before it can continue.
In part three (22:31-39:27), the guys turn their attention to the next set of laws within Numbers 5, which describe what a husband should do if he suspects his wife has committed adultery. Linguistically, Numbers 5:11-31 strongly recalls Genesis 6-8 when human women have illicit sex with spiritual beings called Nephilim, and God responds with intense judgment and floods the earth.
To determine if a woman is guilty of adultery or not, she had to stand before a priest and Yahweh and drink water with dust in it. If she was guilty, the water would make her sick or make her miscarry. If she was innocent, it would have no effect on her. This is a strange law that may make many of us in a contemporary context feel uncomfortable, which is why it’s a great example of why we shouldn’t directly apply laws from the Torah into a modern context.
This law is situated here among these other strange laws because the narrator is doing something bigger: In the Hebrew Bible, the language of prostitution and adultery is primarily used of the entire nation of Israel breaking their covenant with Yahweh. In context, this set of laws is reminding us of the unfolding melody of the Hebrew Bible—death exiled outside Eden, Israel meant to live righteously where Adam and Eve failed, and the reality that only faithful, holy Israel will come through the flood waters unscathed and able to continue being fruitful and multiplying.
In part four (39:27-57:55), Tim and Jon explore Numbers 6. If we’re anticipating the Hebrew Bible melody, then we should expect a righteous representative of Yahweh to emerge out of the flood waters. Sure enough, the fourth set of laws in this section contains instructions for men and women who want to make a Nazarite vow. Nazir means to be set apart.
As part of being holy to the Lord, the first thing the Nazarites are to abstain from is alcohol, a callback to Noah, whose drunkenness immediately after the flood led to sin within his family. This also connects to Nadab and Abihu, who drunkenly desecrated God’s holy space. Part of being a Nazarite included not cutting your hair. Tim suggests that this may have been to allow the Nazarites to revert to their most natural, primal appearances, kind of like Adam. This set of laws brings our Genesis 1-9 cycle back to the beginning with the election of another chosen representative (the Nazarites).
Show produced by Cooper Peltz. Edited by Dan Gummel, Tyler Bailey, and Frank Garza. Show notes by Lindsey Ponder. Podcast annotations for the BibleProject app by MacKenzie Buxman.
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