The LORD then, in Numbers 5:5-10, instructed Moses about what to do when a person commits an offense against another person in the camp. This section repeats the law given to Moses in Leviticus 5:14-6:7. It stresses the importance of maintaining purity in interpersonal relationships within the camp as they travel to the Promised Land.
Starting in verse 5, the Lord spoke to Moses (v. 5) about another topic. Once again, it concerned all of the Israelites, because Moses was to speak to the sons of Israel (v. 6). The issue at hand concerned the situation when a man or woman commits any of the sins of mankind. The phrase “sins of mankind” probably refer to sinful actions done by one person against another person.
Though the “sin” mentioned here was committed against another human being, it was also considered acting unfaithfully against the Lord. The phrase “acting unfaithfully” in Hebrew reads “to trespass a trespass against the LORD.” To be sure, a wrong done to another person was hurtful, but it was also an affront to the holy, sovereign LORD at the same time. That is because God’s intent for humanity is for them to live in love and harmony, and His commands are intended to that end. Therefore, harming other people is also an affront to God. This was similar to what David said in 2 Samuel 12:13 and Psalm 51:4.
The person-to-person sins outlined in the law of Moses that could be in mind for this law include provisions to care for the poor or disadvantaged, commands against theft, fraud, personal injury, and slander. Below are listed some examples from Leviticus 19:9-16:
- “‘Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the Lordyour God.
- 11 ‘You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another. 12 You shall not swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the name of your God; I am the Lord.
- 13 ‘You shall not oppress your neighbor, nor rob him. The wages of a hired man are not to remain with you all night until morning.
- 14 You shall not curse a deaf man, nor place a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall revere your God; I am the Lord.
- 15 ‘You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly.
- 16 You shall not go about as a slanderer among your people, and you are not to act against the life of your neighbor; I am the Lord.”
This law stipulated that when that person is guilty, he or she was required to make restitution. How this was to be done depended on the circumstances. In addition to being a means to restore communal harmony, making restitution is a means of teaching or training, by causing the perpetrator to feel the loss they caused, through having to pay the equivalent value of the damage for which they were responsible. Paul stated in his letter to the Galatians that the purpose of the law was to be our “tutor” in order to “lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24). Restitution teaches us the need to change. But eventually we should come to realize we need a new heart, and that comes by grace through faith (Galatians 6:15).
The first scenario depended on whether the victim, or a relative of the victim, was still alive. If so, the offender was first to confess his sins which he has committed (v. 7) to the victim. Keep in mind that the use of the male pronouns “his” and “he” in these verses should be considered generic, referring to both male and female.
The Hebrew word for “confess” (the “hithpael” of the Heb. verb “yadah,” meaning “to know”) has the basic meaning of “acknowledge.” Here, it meant that the person was to acknowledge his/her wrongdoing to the one who was harmed.
Also, the person was to make restitution in full for his wrong and add to it one-fifth of it. The perpetrator was to pay the victim the full amount of what was taken plus twenty percent. He or she was to give it to him whom he has wronged. This might indicate that this provision primarily has in mind sins involving damage to property or damages that can be computed in monetary terms.
The other scenario was if the man (the victim) has no relative to whom restitution may be made for the wrong (v. 8). The word for “relative” (Heb. “goel”) refers to a family member who was responsible to rescue (or “redeem”) his kinsman from some difficulty or danger. The classic example of a “goel” (“kinsman-redeemer”) is Boaz in the book of Ruth.
If there was no one to pay back, it did not mean that the offender was free from making restitution. In this case, the restitution which is made for the wrong must go to the Lord for the priest. The offender was still obligated to pay back what was taken, but it was to be made to the priest. This allowed the priest to be supported.
Because the offense was against the LORD as well as a fellow Israelite, the offender needed to bring the ram of atonement. It was the way by which atonement is made for him. The “ram of atonement” was used here as a trespass (or reparation) offering (Leviticus 6:6).
Verses 9-10 are concerned with supporting the priests under normal circumstances. The priests’ physical needs were to be taken care of by the people. Thus, every contribution pertaining to all the holy gifts of the sons of Israel, which they offer to the priest, shall be his (v. 9). The “contribution” refers to anything that people set aside in order to give to the priests to sustain them.
The principle here was that every man’s holy gifts shall be his (v. 10), meaning the priest’s. So, whatever any man gives to the priest, it becomes his. This could refer to a scenario where someone would give a “holy gift” publicly with the understanding that it would be returned to the giver privately. This would be an example of an improper, insincere, and, as a result, impure gift given to a priest. If something is given to the priest, this law dictates that the priest is entitled to keep it.
This law contributes to the theme of chapters 5-6 concerning purity among the people. The LORD seems to be saying that, in order to have a successful journey to the Promised Land, purity in the people’s behavior was essential. As usual, this requirement is immensely practical. If the people are warring with one another, they will not be fit to take the Promised Land, nor will they be fit to fulfill their assigned responsibility to be priests to the other nations. If Israel follow God’s commands, and care for and love one another, then they will have unity, and be well poised to take the land, and fulfill their assigned responsibility to be priests to the surrounding nations, showing them that living in a self-governing manner with mutual benefit and cooperation is a superior way to live and prosper.
5 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 6 “Speak to the sons of Israel, ‘When a man or woman commits any of the sins of mankind, acting unfaithfully against the Lord, and that person is guilty, 7 then he shall confess his sins which he has committed, and he shall make restitution in full for his wrong and add to it one-fifth of it, and give it to him whom he has wronged. 8 But if the man has no relative to whom restitution may be made for the wrong, the restitution which is made for the wrong must go to the Lord for the priest, besides the ram of atonement, by which atonement is made for him. 9 Also every contribution pertaining to all the holy gifts of the sons of Israel, which they offer to the priest, shall be his. 10 So every man’s holy gifts shall be his; whatever any man gives to the priest, it becomes his.’”
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