It’s not just in this morning’s passage from Numbers, but throughout the Torah – detailed instructions for dealing with gross things: infectious skin diseases, unusual discharges, touching a dead body.
There’s clearly a practical side to this, God’s wanting to protect His people from diseases like leprosy or tuberculosis. But there is also a spiritual side to it. In chapter 5, verse 3, God told Moses: “Send away male and female alike, so they will not defile their camp, where I dwell among them.”
“Defile the camp.” The word means to make it unclean – either physically or spiritually.
There is usually nothing unholy about falling prey to germs or viruses, but it does make the person unclean in a medical sense. When you see all the handwashing signs in restaurant and hospital bathrooms touting the benefits of clean hands – they are not put there because they are afraid someone might have dirt or grease on their hands. It’s because of germs and viruses like e-coli or salmonella that could be spread to others. That’s why we have the signs in our restrooms: “Wash your hands and say your prayers, because Jesus and germs are everywhere.”
Pathogens could wreak havoc in and on the community in the days before antibiotics and antivirals, so it was better to quarantine people who had been exposed – even if they died outside the camp – than to have disease spread and claim more victims.
If we had time to read more from Numbers, we would also find other ways of protecting the purity of the Israelite camp. In chapter five we find restitution for wrongs, which included confessing the sin, restoring what was taken, plus a 20-percent premium. Imagine – punitive damages 25-hundred years before Edgar Snyder graduated from Law School!
Chapter five also contains a test by which a jealous husband could find out if his wife cheated on him, if he had no proof. It is one of the most disturbing passages in the Hebrew Bible, and will be the subject of its own sermon next Lord’s Day.
Chapter 15 tells of the harsh penalty for breaking the Sabbath. A man who was gathering wood and was caught was stoned to death outside the camp. To let this pass unchallenged would have meant that everyone with any reasonable excuse could get away with working on the Sabbath. No one would take time for rest and worship – as has become the norm since the Blue Laws were abolished. (Yes, I am old enough to remember them.)
Some businesses held out for years – like Riesbeck’s – but eventually gave in because they could not compete. Now, Sunday is a preferred day to shop, rather than only for necessities.
Except in Maine, where car dealerships are closed on Sundays by law. And the dealers lobby to keep it that way, because they want a day off. They know that if the ban is lifted, then everyone would have to open on Sundays to stay in business.
The Sabbath was to ensure that people took time to rest – and to worship. Those would quickly be pushed out of their lives if God did not enforce the Sabbath harshly – as worship and rest have been pushed out of so many lives today. And you have to wonder how many more lives have been shortened because of that …
So Numbers gives us something of a Zero-Tolerance Policy – not only for unclean hands, but also unclean hearts – for the good of everyone in the Israelite camp.
This was to protect the people from threats to their health and the health of the community. And when it comes to sin, that spreads as quickly as disease, if not more so. So maintaining purity in the camp was for everyone’s physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual health.
So spiritual disease is contagious, too. Our son, Robbie, used to try to be funny by saying, “Give in to peer pressure – everyone’s doing it!” That is the nature of peer pressure – just knowing that “everyone” (and I put quotation marks around that) is doing it creates in many people a desire to do the same or at least gives them justification for doing it.
I know of a workplace – that will remain unidentified – but it is a graveyard for marriages. Every woman I know who was married when she went to work there is now divorced. I don’t believe it has anything to do with the business, but you can imagine how conversations at lunch probably do not leave much room for telling your now-single colleagues how much you love being married to your husband. Discontent is contagious. Sin spreads.
The law handed down on Sinai included the Kosher dietary laws. They are not restated in Numbers, but there is a reference to clean and unclean animals. There are many practical reasons given why pork and shellfish and eagles should not be eaten – lack of refrigeration and allergies, just to name a couple – but there was a spiritual reason for this, too.
God wanted His people to be different from all the other nations around them. He wanted them to be set apart – holy – and not like everyone else. That meant not eating lobster, which often eats the scraps from other sea creature’s meals that end up on the ocean floor. God was using shellfish as a metaphor for His people’s temptation to pick up spiritual beliefs or practices from their neighbors – like religious bottom-feeders. And we all know that giving up bacon is a real sacrifice for most of us – and sacrifice is a good spiritual discipline.
The death of Jesus set us free from the ceremonial law – the system of sacrifices and special diets and purification protocols – although many of those are still healthy and wise practices. They just are not mandated for spiritual reasons anymore. But the moral law still holds for us today – as it did for Paul and the Corinthian who thought it was OK to have an affair with his father’s wife – his step-mother.
If Paul had meant his mother, he would have said so, so it’s not quite as shocking as it sounds at first blush. But it still would make a Jerry Springer audience uncomfortable.
He is clear that the church there had to do the first-century equivalent of putting someone outside the camp – the man had to be put out of the Church until he saw the error of his ways and repented.
Now this is very important: Paul was very clear that this applied only to someone who was part of the Church and who knew better – not to the general public, who might attend worship to find out what Christianity was about. If the Church allowed a member to do such a thing, then it would spread. The outsider would and should never be held to the same standard.
In other words, membership has its privileges – but it also has its responsibilities. I’m not advocating witch-hunts or excommunications, but we must police ourselves. Because we are “reformed, always being reformed according to the Word of God,” we must continually look into our own hearts to see where we need to repent, to confess, and to seek the Holy Spirit’s help in making us more like Jesus in our attitudes and behavior.
Those in church leadership cannot ignore attitudes and behavior that harm the health of the congregation – and must gently, graciously hold people accountable and encourage them in repentance and forgiveness. Again, the goal is never to punish, but to foster health in the entire congregation.
But it begins with each of us as individuals. If we succeed there, then leadership will never need to get involved. Ideally, each of us should pray regularly David’s prayer at the end of Psalm 139: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”