God’s Word for You
Numbers 31:19-24, 48-54 Atonement for soldiers
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, January 21, 2022
19 “All of you who have killed a person or touched a slain body shall stay outside of the camp for seven days. Purify yourselves and your captives on the third day and on the seventh day. 20 Also purify every garment, every leather item, everything made of goat hair, and every item of wood.”
The second half of chapter 31 answers certain questions that many people ask in Bible class, and even children in Sunday school; questions about the wars of the Jews, God’s attitudes about killing, and even a soldier’s contact with a dead body. Here especially we see the command that soldiers had to purify themselves after a battle, whether they killed anyone or not. As always in Israel, contact with a dead body or with blood required purification, ceremonial cleansing. Soldier, servant, armor-bearer, prisoner, or cook; everyone had to purify themselves.
The cleansing of items that could be burned is different from metal things. Garments, leather items and wooden things had to be washed (“purified with water,” verse 23), just as in the cleansing from mildew (Leviticus 13:58).
21 Eleazar the priest said to the soldiers who had gone into battle, “These are the regulations which the Lord has commanded Moses: 22 The gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin, and lead 23 (everything that can withstand fire) you must be sure to pass through the fire, and it will be clean. It also is to be purified with the water for removing impurity. Everything that cannot withstand fire, you are to pass through the water. 24 You shall wash your clothes on the seventh day, and you will be clean. After that, you may come into the camp.”
Items that could safely pass through fire didn’t have to be melted down, but were simply passed through burning flames. In this way a dagger or sword with leather wrapped around the grip could be passed through the fire, not allowing the handle to catch fire, but then it had to be washed as well.
Earlier in the book we saw that any ceremonially unclean person had to remain outside the camp for seven days and then bathe (Numbers 19:19). Here this is put into practice for anyone involved in the battle, or in treating the wounded, or in burying the dead.
This illustrates the difference between sin and being ceremonially unclean. To sin is a thing a person does, and oftentimes it causes one to be ceremonially unclean. But to be ceremonially unclean usually has nothing to do with sin apart from the inherited stain of sin. A woman who had a baby, a married couple who had sex, a soldier who did his duty in battle all became ceremonially unclean. The new mother would be unclean for seven days (or twice that if she gave birth to a girl, Leviticus 12:2,5). The husband and wife who were intimate would be unclean until sundown (Leviticus 15:18). The soldier who killed or touched a corpse would be unclean for a week (Numbers 31:24).
But note also that God can and does sometimes command that his people do things that would make them ceremonially unclean, but God never commands that a person must sin. God is not the author or instigator of sin. Sin has corrupted certain things so that what was once simply part of life (such as marital sex and childbirth) is now stained with sin, represented by blood, but the act of giving birth or conceiving a child is not sinful. So also a holy war, commanded by God, such as this war on Midian, was not sinful. The soldiers had to be purified, but their actions were not sinful, terrible as they were. Too often Christians forget even today that the Fifth Commandment is not “You shall not kill” with “kill” in the modern sense of ending any life at all, as if killing a hog, a fish, or a pheasant is sinful. The Hebrew verb in the Fifth Commandment is ratsah, “murder” (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17 ), which is the unlawful premeditated killing of one human being by another. We already discussed three instances where God permits the lawful taking of a human life in Numbers chapter 10: capital punishment, self-defense, and in a just war.
48 The officers who were over the units of a thousand in the army—the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds—approached Moses.
We passed over verses 25-47. In that section, the plundered sheep, cattle, donkeys and women were divided between everyone in Israel, soldiers, priests, and everyone else. A small share went to the service of the Lord, including 32 girls (out of 32,000 virgins) who evidently joined the women serving at the entrance of the tent (tabernacle), as we find in certain places in the Scriptures (Exodus 38:8; 1 Samuel 2:22). We might think of them as ushers or custodians today.
49 They said to Moses, “Your servants have taken a head count of the fighting men who were under our command, and not one of them is missing. 50 So we have brought as an offering to the LORD the gold items which every man acquired—armlets, bracelets, signet rings, earrings, and necklaces—to make atonement for ourselves before the LORD.”
When the officers did the headcount of the men under their command, they discovered that not a single Israelite had been killed in the battle. This caused a spontaneous act of worship in the army, and they made an offering from the gold they had plundered. They did this “to make atonement for [them]selves.” By this they meant that they were responding to God for what he had done. They were not making atonement for their sin in the way Christ atoned for the sin of the world on the cross by turning aside God’s wrath and by taking away sin (Romans 3:25). Their offering is frequently called a freewill offering, but if this was the case, why didn’t Moses call it a nadabah “freewill offering” (Exodus 36:3; Leviticus 7:16 22:23; Deuteronomy 23:24)? Why say it was for kipper “atonement”? First, we must dismiss the possibility that this was an error on the part of the commanders. They didn’t misspeak, or else Moses himself would have corrected their language and preached a sermon on the difference between freewill and atoning sacrifices. No, they knew that this sacrifice would not truly atone for their sins, but they offered it because their lives had been spared despite their sinfulness, and they were awaiting the arrival of the one priest who would finally and truly atone for all sin, which is Christ alone. No other priest was without sin or could be without sin except for Christ. None of the sacrifices of the tabernacle could take away sin, but all of the sacrifices were types, theological types, images of the true and singular sacrifice to come, which would come on the cross. In this case, the offering was like the exodus itself, an event which was a picture of God rescuing his people from their bondage to sin by rescuing them from their bondage to slavery. Here, the salvation of every single soldier was a type, in their eyes (and in the eyes of the Holy Spirit) of God rescuing all of his people without losing a single one. Jesus said, “I shall lose none of all he has given me” (John 6:39).
51 Moses and Eleazar the priest accepted the gold from them, all the crafted items. 52 All the gold from the elevated offering that the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds lifted up to the LORD amounted to 16,750 shekels. 53 Each of the soldiers had taken plunder for himself. 54 Moses and Eleazar the priest accepted the gold from the commanders of thousands and hundreds and brought it into the Tent of Meeting as a memorial for the Israelites before the LORD.
The final item is the value of the plunder itself. Remember that at this point in history, there were no coins. “Money” was a calculation of weight or of equivalence (Genesis 23:16; Numbers 7:85-86; 1 Samuel 17:7). The shekel was the standard weight, a little over 9 grams (a U.S. quarter weighs about 5½ grams, and a fifty-cent piece weighs about 11 grams). For comparison, the smallest backyard songbirds (wren, chickadee, nuthatch) all weigh about one shekel, or 9 grams.
This offering of gold was a memorial. As with many of the sacrifices and freewill offerings, a memorial portion was a part of the offering that was set out and displayed in some way as a reminder of what had been done. There was a memorial of incense when the new bread (showbread) was brought into the holy place (Leviticus 24:7). There was a memorial when the people brought in their firstfruits (Leviticus 2:14). There was even a memorial offering connected with the test of a jealous husband (Numbers 5:26). In the New Testament, an angel explains that prayers and gifts for the poor may “come up (ascend) as a memorial offering before God” (Acts 10:4). That is to say, these things were evidence of faith like the confession of a creed (2 Corinthians 9:13; 1 Timothy 6:12). The true confession of the Son of God is finally what we are doing when we, the people of his Church and his pasture (Psalm 95:7, 110:3), go about our everyday tasks in faith. Whether I travel, teach a child, sweep the floor, make a meal, preach a sermon, walk the dog, or comfort a crying infant, I do it in faith, and therefore I do it to the glory of God. If I can show my faith in a more direct way while doing it, then glory is given to God all the more. Blessed are those who walk in his ways (Proverbs 8:32). This is the daily walk of the people of God.
Pastor Timothy Smith