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God’s Word for You

Numbers 5:1-4 Send away the unclean

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, June 16, 2021

In chapters 5 and 6, the Lord addresses the physical purity of the nation and gives precise directions about what should be done with someone who is unclean in various ways.

Separation From the Unclean
5 The Lord spoke to Moses: 2 “Command the Israelites to send outside of the camp everyone who has an impure skin disease, everyone who has a bodily discharge, and everyone who is unclean because of contact with a dead body. 3 You must send them away, male or female. You must send them outside of the camp so that they will not defile their camps, where I dwell in their midst.” 4 The Israelites did exactly that and sent them outside of the camp. The Israelites did just as the Lord said to Moses.

The first three examples of someone who is unclean are extreme cases that involve the skin in particular. The subject of impure (or infectious) skin diseases (including leprosy) was covered thoroughly in Leviticus 13-14. Examples include a swelling (Leviticus 13:9-11), an all-over discoloration (Leviticus 13:12-17), a boil (Leviticus 13:18-23), a burn (Leviticus 13:24-28), a sore that is more than skin deep (Leviticus 13:29-37), white spots (Leviticus 13:38-39), baldness (Leviticus 13:40-44), and mildew in the house (Leviticus 13:47-59). There was a specific procedure for sending such an infected person out of the camp, to be examined after a week, and then to permit them to return after healing.

I have had more than one former soldier ask me about the second example, and this is understandable in our culture. The NIV simply says “a discharge of any kind” rather than “a bodily discharge,” but either way, there are plenty of people today who don’t use the word “discharge” for something that happens in the body, but only what happens when a soldier is done with his or her time of service, honorable or otherwise. But Moses wouldn’t have said “discharge” for the release of a warrior; the phrase would be “he sent him/them away” (Joshua 22:6; 1 Chronicles 12:19). The discharge described here, judging from the context of things a man might sit on or lie upon (Leviticus 15:4), involves his sexual organ (various urethral infections, including syphilis and gonorrhea), or more ordinary maladies like diarrhea.

The discharge regulation also applied to a man’s sexual release (he was unclean until the end of that day) and a woman’s monthly period (she was unclean until the period stopped), but also for the rare case of a flow of blood that did not stop (Matthew 9:20).

The third example is contact with a dead body. Obviously a dead person had to be prepared for burial and then buried, and in ancient times people tried to hold a funeral on the same day that a person died, or at sunrise in the case of a person who died in the night (John 19:40-42).  But those who came into contact with a dead body were considered unclean for one week (Numbers 19:11),  and we will see that there was even a provision for those who were unclean during the Passover to celebrate a month later (Numbers 9:6-11). Sometimes families do something like this today when a loved one misses Christmas or a birthday.

About the word shalah in chapter 5:

Biblical Hebrew used patterns of vowels and prefixes (called “stems”) to make changes in the meanings of root words. Here in these verses, shalah “send” is intensified with a stem called the “piel” (pih-ale). This takes the relatively benign word “send” (send a prophet, 2 Kings 2:2; send news, Proverbs 26:6; send cedar logs, 2 Chronicles 2:2) and makes it the more forceful “send away, expel.” But the piel stem can mean even more than that. It can be a public declaration of sending away, the characteristic of always sending away (“this is what is always done”), and it can also emphasize both the aim and the result of an action: Send them away in order that the camp will be clean. “Send away” in this form is, in certain contexts, the term for “divorce” (Malachi 2:16), but sometimes an even stronger term was used when an Israelite ended an unlawful marriage (“force out, drive out” Ezra 10:3).

In all, I have counted thirty-three applications or uses of the piel stem in Hebrew, almost all suggested by various grammars or commentaries going back about 150 years. Although this was the subject of a conference paper I delivered a few years ago, I have no illusions about the obscurity of my research. I will include a list of these piel applications and uses as a footnote to this devotion. I’m happy to send a copy of the paper, “The Piel Stem,” to anyone who would like it.

Here in Numbers 5, the frequent use of “send outside, send them away” shows the Lord’s concern for the holiness of his community. Anything impure or unclean was to be removed. If that was a person, they could return after they were healed. And this shows us the hope and the promise available to all mankind for our sinfulness. Our sins stain us and bring guilt down on our heads, but we are not removed from God’s sight forever. “The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth” (Isaiah 25:8). Our healing comes from Christ, and that healing is complete. “Blessed is the one whose sins the Lord will never count against him” (Romans 4:8; Psalm 32:2). We are bathed in the healing water of our baptism, and we are declared to be righteous by the forgiveness declared week after week as we confess our sins and hear the gospel proclaimed: “Your sins are forgiven. You are at peace with God.”

A list of 33 uses of the Piel Verb Stem

  1. Intensive
    1. Simple intensive
    2. Showing respect (or disrespect)
    3. Distributive
    4. Idiomatic
    5. Unexpected action
    6. Strenuous, earnest, or violent action
    7. Sexual action
    8. Eager action
    9. Quick, staccato action (mihar)
  2. The piel reverses or inverts the qal meaning or use

    1. Transitive of a qal intransitive
    2. Intransitive of a qal transitive
    3. Opposite, privative, or indelicate meaning
    4. Literal of qal figurative
    5. Figurative of qal literal
    6. Profane of qal sacred
  3. Declarative or forensic

    1. Declarative
    2. Forensic
    3. Official statement
    4. Marketplace valuation
  4. Iterative or characteristic

    1. Multiple subjects in the same act
    2. Multiple objects of the same act
    3. Multiple occurrences of the same act
    4. Habitual or naturally iterative action
    5. Characteristic action
    6. Frequent, repetitive, or uninterrupted action
  5. The piel in place of another stem

    1. Light = qal
    2. Reflexive = nifal
    3. Causative = hifil
    4. Pual in place of… = qal passive
  6. Showing result or aim, or accomplished fact

    1. Showing result or aim
    2. Showing accomplished act (“aoristic”)
  7. Denominative or diminutive

    1. Denominative
    2. Diminutive

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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