Light from the Sidra


Numbers 4:21-7:89.Haftarah:Judges 13:2-25

A friend of mine once went to a meal in a restaurant with an Orthodox Jewish friend who held a prominent position in his synagogue. They both ordered steak but, to the horror of my friend, when the steaks were served they were topped with a rasher of bacon. Out of respect to his Jewish friend, John put the rasher to one side of the plate. After a few minutes his friend asked if he was going to eat the bacon. John said he would give it a miss, whereupon his friend transferred the bacon from John’s plate to his own. When John expressed surprise, the Jewish man told him there was no one there to see what he was doing.

This week’s Parasha deals in large part with secret sins and makes it clear that we can run but we can’t hide from God.

Israel is holy and God dwells in the heart of the camp in the Tabernacle. Physical and moral defects have to be dealt with. Certain defects are so serious that the sufferers have to be excluded from the camp of the holy people until such a time as the abnormalities are eliminated. Israelites who have touched dead bodies or are suffering from particular skin diseases that make them resemble the flesh of the dead. Discharges of bodily fluids such as blood or semen, presumably because those fluids are associated with life, result in exclusion from the camp in which the living God resides.

When people sin against his commandments, their sins have to be atoned for by sacrifice offered at the tabernacle. In this way, it is possible for the holy God to remain in the midst of them. But what about those in the community who are guilty of sins about which none but themselves know? What if someone who has purloined his neighbour's goods (5:5-10) but begins to feel guilty for the crime? What about a woman who has cheated on her husband (5:11-31) but has managed to keep the fact well hidden?

God sees and he has ways of bringing the matter to light, either through speaking to a person’s conscience or through what might appear to us as a magical ritual (it isn’t magic but to those of us living in an “enlightened” age, it appears that way).

If a man obeys the voice of his conscience and admits to damaging or stealing the property of a fellow Israelite, he has to offer a sacrifice and restore the value of what he has stolen plus 20%. We could do a lot worse than apply the same principle to our own legal system.

If a husband becomes suspicious that his wife has been unfaithful to him, he can arrange with the priest for herĀ  to undergo a ritual that would expose her unfaithfulness (if she had indeed been unfaithful) that involved her drinking water with some of the holy ground from the tabernacle mixed with it. However bizarre the ceremony might appear to us, it is connected to the holiness of the tabernacle, the camp and the people. Israel is to be a holy people and, should someone wish to devote themselves to a particularly holy life for a period of time, they could take a Nazirite vow, under which they would forego some of the nicer things of life such as wine in order to devote themselves to God. Samson and Samuel were both lifelong Nazarites.

Jesus has traditionally been depicted in western art with long hair. This was no doubt because artists misunderstood Matthew 2:23: “And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’.”

Nazarene is most likely a play on words. The Messiah was to be ha Netzer, “a Branch” (Isaiah 11:1) and it was appropriate that he should live in a town with a similar sounding name.

However, as the anointed Messiah, Jesus was the Holy One of God, the one who lived a totally sanctified life devoted to doing his Father’s will. And this is good news for Israel. All approaches to God had to be through holy, sanctified, God-ordained channels: the tabernacle, the priests, the sacrifices, and so on. And all those institutions turned out to be flawed. They never delivered what they were supposed to.

As God’s totally Holy One, Jesus superseded all Israel’s institutions, so much so that he could say he was the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one could come to God except by him. He sees our faults, our failures and our sins, both blatant and secret, and loves us anyway and offers forgiveness for them all if we will trust him.

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