Commentary on Numbers 15:22-31

Notes (NET Translation)

Leviticus 4:1–5:13 already has legislation on similar matters. In Lev. 4, four classes of sinners are delineated: the anointed priest (vv. 1–12), the whole community (vv. 13–21), the leader (nāśî, vv. 22–26), and the individual (vv. 27–35). In the present passage these classes are reduced to two more general ones: the community (vv. 22–26) and the individual (vv. 27–29). Lev. 4 requires the following purification offerings (ḥāṭṭā’ṯ): for the priest or community, one young bull (vv. 3, 14); for the leader, one male goat (v. 23); and for the individual, one female goat (v. 28). Num. 15 requires a purification offering of one male goat for the community plus a young bull as a whole burnt offering (‘ōlâ, v. 24); for the individual, the purification offering is one female goat, with no whole burnt offering prescribed (v. 27). . . .

In general, Lev. 4 details the purification offering, while Num. 15 assumes that offering and gives special cases of it. The main purposes of Num. 15 are the addition of the whole burnt offering in the case of the individual (v. 24), the application of the law to the sojourner (vv. 26, 29), and, most importantly, the explicit statement that sins with a high hand, i.e., sins of open rebellion (such as those of ch. 14), are not sacrificially expiable (vv. 30–31). That such laws might be modified and supplemented over time is seen elsewhere in the biblical text.1

22 “‘If you sin unintentionally and do not observe all these commandments that the LORD has spoken to Moses — 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 — 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.

The first example in this passage concerns an unintentional sin committed by the community (vv 24-26), as opposed to an individual (vv 27-29). Lev 4:14 prescribes a bull for a purification offering whereas Num 15:24 prescribes a bull as a burnt offering and a male goat as purification offering.

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.

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.

27 “‘If any person sins unintentionally, then he must bring a yearling female goat for a purification offering.

Lev 4:28, 32 allows for a goat or a lamb to be offered whereas Num 15:27 mentions only a goat.

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.

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.

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. 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.'”

One who acts defiantly (literally, “acts with a high/upraised hand”), acts deliberately, brazenly, and blatantly.

The same phrase describes the attitude of the Israelites to Pharaoh and the Egyptians at the time of the Exodus (e.g., Exod. 14:8; Num. 33:3, usually translated as “boldly,” or even “defiantly”). The Israelites thought themselves quite beyond the sphere of interference by Pharaoh, and they were confident that he was irrelevant for their future. While the passages in Exod. 14 and Num. 33 provide a positive evaluation of such an attitude, and the context here clearly calls for a negative evaluation, there are parallels in the attitude: the sinner with a high hand considers Yahweh irrelevant for the future; this one sins in an open-eyed and rebellious way, knowing full well what he or she is doing. This kind of rebellion therefore differs from the intentional sin described in Lev. 5:20–26 (Eng. 6:1–7) for which a reparation offering may be made, “when the offender feels guilty” (5:23, 26). The sinner with a high hand feels no guilt; therefore the offense is not sacrificially expiable. . . .

Three further clauses specify this type of sin. First, such a one reviles Yahweh (‘eṯ YHWH hû’ meḡaddēp̄, v. 30). The position of the name Yahweh shows that the emphasis is not only on the abuse, but also on the identity of the one abused, the Almighty God. The verb gāḏap̄ occurs only here in the Pentateuch, and means “revile,” “abuse.”

Second, the sinner with a high hand disdained the word of Yahweh (deḇar–YHWH bāzâ, v. 31). Although the verb “to disdain, despise” is fairly common in the OT, it is rare in the Pentateuch (only here and 25:34). It means “to regard with contempt.” The word of Yahweh includes the legislation that Yahweh has given, but this legislation is the communication of God, designed to bring humans into a relationship with him. Treating that personal communication with contempt means rejecting the relationship with God as well.

Third, such a sinner broke his [i.e., Yahweh’s] commandment (we’eṯ–miṣwāṯô hēp̄ar, v. 31), which means that he or she had not done those things that Yahweh had directed.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. Ashley 1993, 284–286 
  2. Ashley 1993, 288-289 

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