There is the tendency to read the book of Numbers as a series of disjointed pieces of information. We can see why people are tempted to do so when we leave these interesting narrative sections about Israel in the wilderness and suddenly get a restatement of laws, which seem to be completely out of place. One commentator called the book of Numbers the junkyard of God’s laws, as if it was a dumping ground for laws that were not previously given in the book of Exodus. But I want us to have an important lens for this book. The laws are not randomly dumped into this book but strategically placed with the narrative accounts to help the reader understand what has happened. Further, we must also keep in mind as we continue to read through the book of Numbers that the present generation are going to be dying daily as God promised because this generation of Israel rebelled and did not go up to take the promised land. In these next six chapters Israel was now wandering in the wilderness for 40 years awaiting the maturity of the next generation to take the land. They must be taught the ways of God and see the wonders of God in the wilderness.
God’s Sovereign Will (15:1-2)
After the rebellion that we have just looked at in Numbers 14, I want us to read the first two verses of Numbers 15 with awe and wonder.
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land you are to inhabit, which I am giving you…” (Numbers 15:1–2 ESV).
This is simply staggering. After the failure of Israel and the declaration that these people are not going to enter the land but die in the wilderness, the first recorded words of the Lord are, “When you come into the land you are to inhabit, which I am giving you.” We need to hear the clear and critical message God is teaching. God’s promises are not nullified by sin. The promises of God are not ruined or cancelled by our sins. We may not be able to enjoy the promises because of rebellion. But God’s promises are not erased simply because some or all the earth rejects the Lord. Friends, this is the concept of predestination in the scriptures. God is going to have a people and he is going to bring those people into this land. God is going to build a nation and they will live on the land that God has promised. This is the concept of predestination: God’s promises are not thwarted by us. This is a big New Testament picture is that God’s Israel will be the Gentiles if the Jews continue to reject the promises of God. A nation’s rejection of God does not mean God will not or cannot carry out his promises.
Teaching On Sins (15:3-41)
You will notice that chapter 15 is describing the need for the people to bring their sacrifices as a picture of this continuing relationship with God that is “a pleasing aroma to the Lord” (15:3,7,10,13,14). I would also like you to see that outsiders can participate in the offerings which will also be a pleasing aroma to the Lord (15:14) living under the same rules as given to Israel without distinction (15:15-16). But the rest of the chapter is speaking about what happens when a person sins unintentionally. First, verses 22-26 describe when Israel sins unintentionally (the “you” in verse 22 is plural), the priest can make atonement for Israel and they will be forgiven (15:25). Not only will the congregation of Israel be forgiven but the outsiders will also be forgiven (15:26). Then, verses 27-29 describes when an individual sins that atonement can be made for that person and be forgiven (15:28). In each of these cases blood is required for atonement. Also, the same law is applied to the outsiders as it is for the people of Israel (15:29). This is a wonderful picture that everyone has access to God for atonement for their sins when they sin unintentionally. But what is the question that you have, which is likely the same question that the people of Israel had? What is an unintentional sin? Verse 30 helps us because God describes what is not an unintentional sin.
But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.” (Numbers 15:30–31 ESV)
The ESV and NRSV read that a person acts with “a high hand.” The NASB, CSB, NIV, and NET read “acts defiantly.” The NLT reads “brazenly violates the Lord’s will.” The idea of a “high hand” means that the person is poised to strike. It is a picture of an attack against God. It is the displaying of an angry, clinched fist in the presence of a holy God. Notice that the person who acts with this defiance despises the Lord and that person is to be cut off. Notice that there is no atonement offered for the person who brazenly disobeys, whether Israel or the outsider. This is the only time sin is pictured as unforgivable. In fact, we see the connection to Numbers 14. Why did God not allow these people to go on into the promised land? The answer is provided here in chapter 15: they sinned defiantly. They rejected God, were about to stone God’s leaders, elect a new leader, and return to Egypt. The people fully rejected and displayed a clinched fist to God. Therefore, they could not enter into God’s rest.
Notice in verses 32-36 that another example is given to show what God means. There is a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath. Those who found him doing this brought the man to Moses and Aaron before the whole congregation. They ask the Lord what is supposed to be done. The answer is that he is to be put to death (15:35) and that is what the people did. Why would God not forgive him? The answer has been established: defiant sin will not be forgiven. Brazenly breaking God’s law means that there is no atonement available.
You will notice in verses 37-41 God wanted the people to always remember this truth. God tells the people to put tassels on the corner of their garments to serve as a reminder to the people. What were they to remember? Look at verse 39: “To not follow after your own heart and after your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after.” Wear tassels so that you never forget to never follow your own thinking and your own desires. Doing what we think and we want is rebellion. God is warning that sinning defiantly will not be atoned for. This message is found in the New Testament as well.
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. (Hebrews 10:26–27 ESV)
Nothing has changed with the Lord when it comes to brazenly sinning against the Lord, highhandedly against him. Just as Israel had the knowledge of the truth, willfully rebelled, and fell in the wilderness, we also have come to the knowledge of the truth. If we willfully, defiantly choose to rebel against the Lord we also will not enter the promised land. Now this message sets up what we see in Numbers 16.
Korah’s Rebellion (16:1-11)
A second example is put forward for the readers about the truth of God concerning willful rebellion. Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and On gather some men along with 250 leaders of the congregation of Israel, well-known men, and assemble themselves against Moses and Aaron. Look at what they say in verse 3.
They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” (Numbers 16:3 ESV)
“Who do you think you are! Why do you exalt yourself above everyone else?” Now we know the character of Moses and we know that these things are not true. Moses has not exalted himself. God exalted him. God selected Moses. Moses response is to simply let the Lord decide (16:4-7). But before we let the Lord decide, Moses is going to preach a mini-lesson to these men. Look at it in verse 8.
And Moses said to Korah, “Hear now, you sons of Levi: is it too small a thing for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do service in the tabernacle of the LORD and to stand before the congregation to minister to them, and that he has brought you near him, and all your brothers the sons of Levi with you? And would you seek the priesthood also? Therefore it is against the LORD that you and all your company have gathered together. What is Aaron that you grumble against him?” (Numbers 16:8–11 ESV)
Why are you not satisfied with the work God has given you to do? They had rejected the role God gave them. Their complaining is not against Moses, for Moses is nothing, but against the Lord (16:11). This is an important message that we need to consider: those with a lack of spiritual contentment blame others for their personal shortcomings and frustrations. We are called to be content spiritually with the roles and positions God has given to us. This is the primary message of 1 Corinthians 12-14 as every part has a role and differing gifts. When we rebel against the roles God has given us, we are rebelling against God. We are defying God and sinning defiantly. I want to speak about this in terms of the roles of men and women in the home and the church. We are in a culture right now that simply resists and fights against the idea that there are differing roles for men and women. Everyone should be able to equally do everything in the church is what people think. This is what Korah and these 250 leaders say too. But we are not rebelling against the church or against the leadership structure of a local church but against God. God is the one who said that shepherds had to be men (1 Timothy 3) and it is God who said that it is men who would preach the gospel before the assembly (1 Corinthians 14). Not living within our God given roles in the home and in the church is the highest form of rebellion against God. Notice that Jude puts these two ideas together in his letter.
Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day. (Jude 5–6 ESV)
Notice that Jude illustrates the failure of Israel in the wilderness who disobeyed and angels who did not keep their proper positions of authority. Korah and his men are not happy with the positions God has appointed them to. Angels were apparently not happy with the positions of authority they were given. In the same way, we are sinning defiantly when men are not happy with the roles given to men, when women are not happy with the roles given to women, when fathers are not happy with the roles given to fathers, when mothers are not happy with the roles given to mothers, when children are not happy with the roles given to mothers, when shepherds are not happy with the roles given to shepherds, when preachers are not happy with the roles given to preachers, and so on and so on. Rebellion against the Lord is a lack of contentment with the roles God has called us to live in. It is sinning defiantly against the Lord. By the way, the gender blurring that we have today in our world is the same rebellious, defiant attitude against God, telling him that you are not happy how God made you.
The Test (16:12-50)
In verse 12 Moses calls for two of these men to come to him and they will not come. You are not fooling us and haven’t pulled the wool over our eyes is essential the message they send back to Moses. Moses is angry with this response and pleads to the Lord in verse 15 that he has not done anything that these rebels are charging. Moses has not harmed them or taken anything from them. Further, these two guys say that Moses did not bring them to the land flowing with milk and honey (16:13). This is not Moses’ fault but their own faults for disobeying the Lord! They attack these leaders because they did not like the outcome. Rather than looking at themselves, they attack others because of the outcome of their lives.
So Moses tells Korah to present himself and his 250 men before the Lord tomorrow and bring a firepan. So Korah assembles all the congregation against Moses and Aaron at the entrance of the tabernacle. Then the glory of the Lord appears and tells Moses and Aaron to get away from the congregation because he is going to consume them instantly. If you are Moses, would you want to say, “Yes, they deserve it!” But look at what Moses and Aaron say in verse 22. “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and will you be angry with all the congregation?” What does Moses do? Moses again intercedes on behalf of the people.
The Lord then tells Moses to tell the people to get away from the tents of these men and touch nothing of these so that you are not swept away with their sins (16:26). So the people get away from their tents and possessions. Moses then tells the people that if these men die by normal means, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord creates something new that they are swallowed up and going into the grave alive, then you will know that these men have despised the Lord (16:29-30). As soon as Moses finished speaking the ground opened and swallowed them up with their households and goods.
The people run away for fear that the earth will swallow them up also (16:34). Then fire came out from the Lord can consumed the 250 men also. The Lord tells Moses to have Eleazar to make hammered plates from the firepans and cover the altar so it will be a sign to the people that no one can come near the Lord who is not a descendant of Aaron. Now you would think this would end all of the problems. But look at verse 41.
The next day all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron saying, “You have killed the people of the Lord” (16:41). The congregation assembles against Moses and Aaron again but the glory of the Lord appears again. The Lord tells Moses again to get away from the congregation “that I may consume them in a moment” (16:45). But in verses 46-48 Moses and Aaron start making atonement for the people because the plague against the people had begun. Listen to verse 48. “And Aaron stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped.”
Friends, this is what Jesus has done for us. Jesus stands between the living and the dead, making atonement so that we are not struck for our sins. Atonement is available if we will not sin defiantly, turning to the Lord for forgiveness when we fail our God. Jesus and the cross are the tassels for us to remember that we must not follow after our own heart or after our own eyes.