Commentary on Numbers 5:1-4

Notes (NET Translation)

1 Then the LORD spoke to Moses:

The laws in chapters 5 and 6 are intended to prevent the camp from becoming ritually impure.

Uncleanness is a most important concept in the Old Testament. Leviticus 11–15 are devoted to expounding its meaning, but it is hard for secularized Western man to grasp. It is of course related to being dirty, for one of the standard ways of removing minor uncleanness is washing (Lev. 11:40; 15:18; 17:15). But it means much more than dirt. It is caused by death, sins, especially of sex, and certain bodily conditions we might class as abnormal. If a person was affected in any of these ways he became unclean and unfit for the presence of God. Indeed, to approach God in such a condition was positively dangerous and could lead to the death of the individual concerned (Lev. 7:20). But unclean people were a danger to the whole community. In some cases their uncleanness could be directly transmitted to other people, thus making them liable to divine judgment if they partook of a sacrifice. But more important still, uncleanness could defile the tabernacle, which would make it impossible for God to dwell there (Lev. 15:31). Thus the very purpose of Israel’s existence would be nullified. Once a year on the day of atonement the priest conducted a purification of the tabernacle to ensure God’s continuing presence with his people (Lev. 16). The measure described here is preventive. By the exclusion of the seriously unclean from the camp the chance of polluting the tabernacle would be reduced.1

2 “Command the Israelites to expel from the camp every leper, everyone who has a discharge, and whoever becomes defiled by a corpse.

“Leprosy” refers to various skin diseases (Lev 13-14). The discharge in question is from the genitals (Lev 15).

In Leviticus 15, where the laws affecting the zāb are presented, removal from the encampment is not explicitly mandated. There, it is only required that such persons be barred from the area near the Tent of Meeting (Lev 15:13–14, 28–29), and then only while awaiting final purification over a period of seven full days. The present law thus imposes an added stringency.2

The rules pertaining corpse defilement are given in Num 19.

Although the requirement that one impure as a result of contact with a corpse remain outside the encampment is nowhere stated explicitly in Numbers 19, the principal source governing the impurity of the dead, such exclusion was undoubtedly intended. This requirement may be inferred from other provisions stipulated in Numbers 19. Thus the materials instrumental for purification were prepared outside the encampment and were to be stored there. The apprehension expressed in Numbers 19 over the mere presence of contaminated persons inside the encampment also supports the conclusion that during the period of purification such persons were to be held outside the encampment. As stipulated in Num 19:13 and 20, a person who failed, in the proper period of time, to attend to the required purifications would be “cut off” from the Israelite community, a penalty that undoubtedly involved actual banishment.3

These three kinds of impurity are communicable. Purification from these conditions takes seven days and a complex ritual.

The omission from the legislation of the parturient (Lev. 12), the menstruating woman (Lev. 15:19–24), and those with impurities that last seven days or more is not accidental. All of these, in contrast to the other conditions, are natural and expected. There is evidence that their bearers were quarantined within the community during their period of impurity (see Isa. 30:22).4

3 You must expel both men and women; you must put them outside the camp, so that they will not defile their camps, among which I live.”

Impurity is not (necessarily) a threat to the life and health of man. It is a threat to the sanctuary, where God dwells. The area outside the camp is outside the contamination range of the sanctuary; impurities there cannot pollute the sanctuary.

4 So the Israelites did so, and expelled them outside the camp. As the LORD had spoken to Moses, so the Israelites did.

This verse is a self-contained chiasm (“So the Israelites did so . . . so the Israelites did”). The threefold fulfillment statement matches the threefold command in verse 2.


Ashley, Timothy R. The Book of Numbers. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Cole, R. Dennis. Numbers. Kindle Edition. The New American Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah. First Edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperOne, 2001.

Levine, Baruch A. Numbers 1-20. The Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Mays, James L., ed. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary. Revised Edition. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.

Milgrom, Jacob. Numbers. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers. Kindle Edition. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Academic, 2015.

  1. Wenham 2015, Kindle Locations 1328-1338 
  2. Levine 2008, 185 
  3. Levine 2008, 185–186 
  4. Milgrom 1990, 33 

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