Sacrificial Rulings, 1-16

15:1  The LORD spoke to Moses: 15:2 “Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘When you enter the land where you are to live, which I am giving you, 15:3 and you make an offering by fire to the LORD from the herd or from the flock (whether a burnt offering or a sacrifice for discharging a vow or as a freewill offering or in your solemn feasts) to create a pleasing aroma to the LORD, 15:4 then the one who presents his offering to the LORD must bring a grain offering of one-tenth of an ephah of finely ground flour mixed with one fourth of a hin of olive oil. 15:5 You must also prepare one-fourth of a hin of wine for a drink offering with the burnt offering or the sacrifice for each lamb. 15:6 Or for a ram, you must prepare as a grain offering two-tenths of an ephah of finely ground flour mixed with one-third of a hin of olive oil, 15:7 and for a drink offering you must offer one-third of a hin of wine as a pleasing aroma to the LORD.
15:8 And when you prepare a young bull as a burnt offering or a sacrifice for discharging a vow or as a peace offering to the LORD, 15:9 then a grain offering of three-tenths of an ephah of finely ground flour mixed with half a hin of olive oil must be presented with the young bull, 15:10 and you must present as the drink offering half a hin of wine with the fire offering as a pleasing aroma to the LORD. 15:11 This is what is to be done for each ox, or each ram, or each of the male lambs or the goats. 15:12 You must do so for each one according to the number that you prepare.
15:13 “ ‘Every native-born person must do these things in this way to present an offering made by fire as a pleasing aroma to the LORD. 15:14 If a resident foreigner is living with you—or whoever is among you in future generations—and prepares an offering made by fire as a pleasing aroma to the LORD, he must do it the same way you are to do it. 15:15 One statute must apply to you who belong to the congregation and to the resident foreigner who is living among you, as a permanent statute for your future generations. You and the resident foreigner will be alike before the LORD. 15:16 One law and one custom must apply to you and to the resident foreigner who lives alongside you.’ ”

Rules for First Fruits, 17-21

15:17 The LORD spoke to Moses: 15:18 “Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘When you enter the land to which I am bringing you 15:19 and you eat some of the food of the land, you must offer up a raised offering to the LORD. 15:20 You must offer up a cake of the first of your finely ground flour as a raised offering; as you offer the raised offering of the threshing floor, so you must offer it up. 15:21 You must give to the LORD some of the first of your finely ground flour as a raised offering in your future generations.

Rules for Unintentional Offenses, 22-31

15:22  “ ‘If you sin unintentionally and do not observe all these commandments that the LORD has spoken to Moses—15:23 all that the LORD has commanded you by the authority of Moses, from the day that the LORD commanded Moses and continuing through your future generations—15:24 then if anything is done unintentionally without the knowledge of the community, the whole community must prepare one young bull for a burnt offering—for a pleasing aroma to the LORD—along with its grain offering and its customary drink offering, and one male goat for a purification offering. 15:25 And the priest is to make atonement for the whole community of the Israelites, and they will be forgiven, because it was unintentional and they have brought their offering, an offering made by fire to the LORD, and their purification offering before the LORD, for their unintentional offense. 15:26 And the whole community of the Israelites and the resident foreigner who lives among them will be forgiven, since all the people were involved in the unintentional offense.
15:27 “ ‘If any person sins unintentionally, then he must bring a yearling female goat for a purification offering. 15:28 And the priest must make atonement for the person who sins unintentionally—when he sins unintentionally before the LORD—to make atonement for him, and he will be forgiven. 15:29 You must have one law for the person who sins unintentionally, both for the native-born among the Israelites and for the resident foreigner who lives among them.

Deliberate Sin, 30-36

15:30 “ ‘But the person who acts defiantly, whether native-born or a resident foreigner, insults the LORD. That person must be cut off from among his people. 15:31 Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person must be completely cut off. His iniquity will be on him.’ ”
15:32 When the Israelites were in the wilderness they found a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day. 15:33 Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and to the whole community. 15:34 They put him in custody, because there was no clear instruction about what should be done to him. 15:35 Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man must surely be put to death; the whole community must stone him with stones outside the camp.” 15:36 So the whole community took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, just as the LORD commanded Moses.

This grim episode provides a specific illustration of sinning ‘defiantly’ (v30f), and also shows how clarification of a general command (in this case, Sabbath observance) was sought.

The sentence was enacted outside the camp in order to prevent contamination from the dead body.

Brown summarises: ‘As a stark example of defiant sinning, a story is introduced that illustrates sin ‘with a high hand’. While the Israelites were in the desert (32), a man violated the covenant agreement by breaking the fourth commandment about keeping the Sabbath. Knowing full well that work of that kind was prohibited, he persisted in collecting fuel. The Lord had issued clear instructions about the penalty if this prohibition was rejected or ignored, so the man was deliberately flouting the law, especially as it specifically prohibited the lighting of fires on the Sabbath day.17 He was despising God’s word, damaging the harmony of the redeemed community, setting a bad example to the younger generation and inflicting harm on himself.’

Harper’s Bible Commentary helpfully looks beyond ‘knee-jerk’ response that many would have to this passage by pointing to its overall meaning and message:

‘Originally the case may have had something to do with the law against kindling a fire on the Sabbath (Exod. 35:3) or with kindling a fire for a sacrifice to foreign gods. In the present context, however, the case provides a concrete example of the law that immediately precedes it concerning sinning flagrantly or “with a high hand” (Num. 15:30). Such deliberate and defiant sin must be punished severely. Thus, this legal case and the laws that precede it share a common theme: the role of intentionality in determining the degree of guilt and punishment. Sins done unwittingly bear less guilt and can be atoned through sacrifice (v. 28), while a blatant and intentional act of disobedience (v. 30) involves great guilt and severe punishment.’

Budd (WBC) notes: ‘The story is a further reminder (see also vv 22–31) that confidence in God’s good purpose is no ground for indifference to his commandments.’

Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, p248) asks:- ‘Did this harmless gatherer of firewood have a wife and children to grieve for him?  Did he whimper with fear as the first stones flew, and scream with pain as the fusillade crashed into his head?  What shocks me today about such stories is not that they really happened.  They probably didn’t.  What makes my jaw drop is that people today should base their lives on such an appalling role model as Yahweh – and, even worse, that they should bossily try to force the same evil monster (whether fact or fiction) on the rest of us.’

It is not just ‘new atheists’ like Dawkins who are appalled by this passage.  Well-known Christian revisionist Steve Chalke (in his ironically-titled ‘Restoring Confidence in the Bible): ‘Did God order this death or did Moses mishear him?’, making it clear that in his own opinion the latter must be the case.

Wenham (TOTC) comments:- ‘The death penalty was exacted for several religious offences in the Old Testament, including idolatry, blasphemy, false prophecy as well as murder, some cases of incest and adultery.’  He quotes Heb 10:28f – ‘Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses.  How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?’

‘The Sabbath was a sign of the covenant between God and Israel. Violation of its sanctity was an especially heinous offense, punishable by execution at the hand of members of the community of faith. The penalty may seem inordinately severe by modern standards, especially in light of Jesus’ teaching about the Sabbath in relationship to human well-being (Mk 2:27). But this is a pivotal occasion in Israel’s history, during which the Lord is laying a foundation for Israel’s understanding of itself as His faithful people. He could permit no doubt about the seriousness of His purpose.’ (Apologetics Study Bible)

Raymond Brown (BST) makes a number of points:-

  1. This is an example of sinning intentionally and ‘with a high hand’, v30f.
  2. It violates a clear commandment – the fourth.
  3. It was carried out in defiance of explicit warning re. consequences, Exod. 20:8–10; 31:14-17
  4. Although it is the only example of such punishment mentioned in the OT, Ezekiel makes it clear that the wilderness generation repeatedly flouted this commandment, Eze 20:12-24.  In this regard, we might compare it with the Ananias and Sapphira incident records in Acts.

Meredith Kline (The Structure of Biblical Authority) sees this incident as an instance of ‘intrusive justice’; i.e. of eschatological judgment being brought forward into the present age.  ‘It is especially significant that among the offenses for which the death penalty was prescribed are violations of the first four laws of the Decalogue (see, e.g., Exod. 31:14f.; 35:2 [cf. Num. 15:32ff.]; Lev. 24:16; Deut. 13:5ff.; 17:2ff.). In the present age such violations are subject to ecclesiastical discipline, but the sword may not be wielded by either church or state in punishment of such offenders, according to the principle of common grace. In the consummation, however, the portion of those who do not obey these laws from the heart will be “the second death.” It is then consummation justice that was intruded when death was prescribed for religious offenses in Israel, the kingdom where the consummation was typically anticipated. The Intrusion appears most vividly in those instances where the infliction of death was not the act of a theocratic official but of God (see, e.g., Num. 11:1f.; 16:31ff.; 2 Kings 2:24).’

Rules for Tassels, 37-41

15:37 The LORD spoke to Moses: 15:38 “Speak to the Israelites and tell them to make tassels for themselves on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and put a blue thread on the tassel of the corners. 15:39 You must have this tassel so that you may look at it and remember all the commandments of the LORD and obey them and so that you do not follow after your own heart and your own eyes that lead you to unfaithfulness. 15:40 Thus you will remember and obey all my commandments and be holy to your God. 15:41 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God. I am the LORD your God.”