Wednesday 16th March 2022

NUMBERS 5 and 6

The Bible is the most misunderstood book in the world.  It must be – or else everyone would by now be a Christian!  And one of the classic examples of misunderstanding is found in Numbers 5: ‘The Test for the Unfaithful Wife’.  Most modern-thinkers will read it and conclude that this is proof that the Bible (and by extension, God) is misogynistic, biased against women, and perpetuates many of the social inequalities that our enlightened society today is at last starting to eradicate.  But read it in the context of the nations surrounding Israel in those days: in the eyes of their menfolk and by the laws of the land, women were property, they were slaves, they were wombs, or they were whores.  They had no rights and if they had found a husband who was reasonably kind, they thought they were in heaven!  If you were the suspicious or paranoid sort of guy who picked up the slightest hint that his wife was ‘playing away’ (perhaps she had once smiled at someone of the opposite sex), then you flew into a rage and set about her with a whip!

The Bible protects women like no other regulation, law, or holy book in existence.  The suspicion was dealt with impartially and judicially by an independent priest and in the presence of the Lord.  The burden of proof lay with the man, effectively, since unless God did a miracle of judgment, the woman would experience no ill-effects at all.  An early case of innocent until proven guilty, then!  If she were truly guilty and had also lied to the Lord on oath, then the punishment for her adultery was severe premature ageing and infertility.  By this method of trial, the accusing husband was not penalised for being wrong and the wife was presumed innocent and vindicated by the Lord.  If that paranoid husband was frequently tempted to accuse his wife without grounds for it, well, these accusations had to be in public.

A Nazirite was someone who made a special vow of dedication to God for a period of time – and occasionally for life (like Samson).  Nowhere in scripture does it really outline the benefits of doing this – except that it clearly marked you out for leadership and the undeniable benefits that we all can receive by drawing closer to the Lord.  Perhaps Samson was forgiven and retained his position of leadership for much longer than he deserved because of his vows – even though he often failed to keep them.  “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.”  (Hebrews 10:22.)  So you abstained from grape products, alcohol, cutting your hair, and dead bodies for the duration of your dedication period – until the job was done.  Interesting that Jesus said (at the Last Supper) “I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom”.  Perhaps Jesus was taking a Nazirite vow in his resolute walk to the cross, the tomb and then the New Day.

Numbers 6 ends with one of my favourite passages in the Bible: The Priestly Blessing.  When my children were young, I blessed them with it every night before they went to sleep;  I still do it now if I can catch them unawares!  It is also found in Psalm 67.  It consists of three short phrases, building up to a kind of crescendo and increasing in length.  In Hebrew, the first line consists of three words, the second of five, and the third of seven.  It was a one-way fatherly, priestly blessing, representing the thoughts of Almighty God himself to the hearer.  Fathers: do you bless your families every day, calling down God’s favour upon them?  That is your inheritance, and theirs.  The ‘Face’ of God, referred to twice, symbolises his presence and his favour, his acceptance, and his compassion.  ‘Peace’ is the Hebrew word ‘Shalom’ that carries the full weight of God’s righteousness, well-being, and rest for us (so much more than just an absence of war!).  John 14:27 is very much a new covenant statement of peace.

Aside from fathers and mothers in respect of their children, there is a sense of us all being a priesthood – a priesthood of believers.  So the New Covenant equivalent of Numbers 6:23-26 is probably found in 2 Corinthians 13:14, called in Christian circles, “The Grace”.  It actually reads fantastically in The Message version of the Bible:  “The amazing grace of the Master, Jesus Christ, the extravagant love of God, the intimate friendship of the Holy Spirit, be with all of you”.  Amen!

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