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God’s Word for You

Numbers 5:5-10 About guilt

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, June 17, 2021

Compensation for Wrongdoing
5 The LORD spoke to Moses and told him 6 to tell the Israelites this: Whenever a man or a woman commits any wrong against another person and so in this way is unfaithful to the LORD, that person must be held responsible. 7 Such people are to confess the wrong which they have done. They are to make full restitution for their guilt, then add one fifth of its value on top of that and give it to the person they have wronged.

The regulations in this chapter now transition from the accidental uncleanness of contact with blood, bodily fluid, or death, to the far more serious issue of guilt over wrongdoing. The ancient Israelites had no prisons. Jails could be improvised using holes or caves (Genesis 37:22-23; Joshua 10:18), but in most cases, a debt for wrongdoing had to be paid instantly, and then life would go on with the debt settled. The usual payment for stealing was to calculate the value of what was stolen and add one fifth of that. The same was true for property damage.

We should remember that for sins against the first six of the Ten Commandments, up to and including sexual sins, the punishment was almost always death:

  • Idolatry – Death (Numbers 25:5)
  • Taking God’s name in vain – Death (Deuteronomy 18:20)
  • Any kind of sorcery, witchcraft, or reading horoscopes – Death by stoning (Leviticus 20:27)
  • Sabbath day broken – Death by stoning (Numbers 15:35)
  • Dishonoring parents – Stoned to death (Exodus 21:17; Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
  • Murder – Put to death (Exodus 21:12)
  • Adultery – Put to death (Leviticus 20:9) (if unmarried, they must marry and he must pay her father the bride-price, Exodus 22:16)
  • Any homosexual act – Put to death (Leviticus 20:13)

As with any mention of ancient punishments for sin, I must remind the reader that we no longer live under the Law of Moses. Although these sins remain sins, it is not our task to punish these sins in this way. Anyone who is tempted to carry out such a punishment would be violating the laws of the nation as well as the laws of Scripture. If a man is tempted to punish someone with death because of the sin of following the horoscope, for example, he must be shown that he has no authority to do so today. If he dares to say, “In Bible times, this was the role of the father of the family,” then he has himself broken the First Commandment by rejecting Christ and Christ’s fulfillment of the Law of Moses. He has set himself outside the Church and is no Christian if he attempts to take the law into his own hands. Let him read Romans 13 if he disagrees.

Returning to our text, for sins of theft or fraud and most cases of false witness, the debt was the value of the stolen item plus twenty percent (one fifth). If no value could be placed on the wrong (such as with slander), then the value of the ram brought as an offering was calculated, and one fifth of its value was added (Leviticus 5:15-16). An exception even to this was that in cases of false testimony, if the false witness was given on purpose in order to bring harm to the accused, then the punishment in question, death or otherwise, would be handed out to the false witness (Deuteronomy 19:18-19). This debt was paid to the person who was wronged, or to their family.

8 But if the wronged person has no next-of-kin to receive the restitution, the restitution goes to the LORD for the priest, in addition to the atonement ram, with which the priest will make atonement for him. 9 Every elevated offering that the Israelites present to the priest will belong to the priest. 10 Anyone’s holy things are his own, but whatever anyone gives to the priest is the priest’s.

This passage is often confusing for the modern reader. The situation is that there has been property damage by a guilty person. To make this easier, let’s just say that I am the guilty man. In verses 5-7 above, I was required to pay for the damage I did. Perhaps I killed his ox, or accidentally burned down his barn, or I wrecked his wall with my hay-wagon. Whatever I did, I had to pay for the repairs and add twenty per-cent (one fifth of the value). This had to be paid to the man I wronged. If he had died, then I had to pay his next-of-kin, or kinsman-redeemer (Leviticus 25:25; Ruth 3:12, 4:1-8).

But beginning with verse 8, the assumption is made that there is no kinsman left. Whom do I pay? Well, payment is still owed, and therefore I have to pay God. I do this by bringing restitution to the priests at the tabernacle, and the share that would normally go to the wronged man or his family would just be kept by the priests. This was how the Lord wanted these cases to be handled.

So what does verse 10 mean when it says, “Anyone’s holy things are his own, but whatever anyone gives to the priest is the priest’s”? Some commentaries (Keil, Fourth Book of Moses p. 29) take the verse to be redundant, as if to say, “Anyone’s holy (gifts) are his (that is, the priest’s); whatever anyone gives belongs to the priest.” I think that the end result is the same, but that the force of the verse is different. This seems to me to be a reminder that this is a guilt offering, not a fellowship or thank offering. In many offerings, what was given was shared by the family of the Israelite who made the offering and the family of the priest who was on duty when the offering was made. They ate the meal together as an expression of fellowship between the Israelite family and God through his representatives, the priestly (Levite) family. But in this case, it was a guilt offering. That meant that the one making the offering did not keep or eat anything that was offered. So although normally a man’s “holy things” (his share of a thank offering or fellowship offering) were his own, this was a guilt offering, and therefore “whatever he gives to the priest (to be offered) is only the priest’s.” I, the guilty man, could not go and make a guilt offering and then expect to consume it myself. None of it was for me. It was all for the Lord, and the Lord chose to supply the needs of his priests with it.

Guilt is not merely something that is felt by an individual. It is also the fact of an offense. Guilt is a thing to be removed. God is aware of guilt even when man isn’t. “The Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished” (Nahum 1:3). And guilt is not a minor thing that can be ignored. “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10). This is like the window of my house. If a man breaks one of my windows to get inside my house, he’s guilty of breaking into my whole house, not just part of it. And so it is with God’s law. A man who breaks one of God’s laws is guilty of breaking God’s whole law, not just one part of it. What Christ did for us was to remove the thing that had to be removed. He took away the guilt of our sins. Our hearts are sprinkled “to cleanse us from a guilty conscience” (Hebrews 10:22). The Christian rejoices in the message of Christ’s forgiveness: “Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7). This is what it is to have our guilt removed. Solomon said, “Anyone who is among the living has hope” (Ecclesiastes 9:4). This is because the living are still within their time of grace, still can hear the gospel, still can be brought to repentance and faith in Christ. Through Christ, we have forgiveness, the removal of guilt, and everlasting life.

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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