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B'Midbar/Numbers 5:7 And they shall confess their sin that they did
The opening word of the text - - is a Hitpa'el 3mp affix form of the root , to throw or to cast. It is used in the Hif'il stem to mean either "to confess openly and freely" or "to give thanks", but the Hitpa'el stem means "to confess, make confession" (Davidson). Here then, with a vav-reversive prefix, it means "and they shall confess". Plaut adds the word 'publicly'; the confession is to be in public. The verb is followed by the direct object - what they are to confess, namely their sin - and a relative clause qualifying the sin: it is the sin that - , the Qal 3mp affix from the root , to do or make - they did. The Septuagint translates 'confess' with - 3ms active future of - a verb meaning "to confess, tell out, make known, declare"1 so that Jacob Milgrom comments, "'declare' - the penitent's remorse must be articulated".
Noticing that the Hebrew verb is plural - 'they' - although rendered singular by most English translations,Ibn Ezra explains that "the Hebrew verbs in this part of the verse are plural as a way of saying, 'he or she, whichever it is'". Referencing a discussion from the Talmud - "It was taught at the school of Rabbi Ishmael that Scripture has made woman and man equal regarding all the penalties of the Law. In the School of Eleazar it was taught that Scripture has made woman and man equal regarding all the judgments of the Law." (b. Bava Kama 15a) - Hirsch claims this text as the point where "the great far-reaching principle in law is given: that the Torah holds men and women in equal responsibility for all transgressions against the law." Anyone, regardless of their position or status within society can and must confess their sin.
But why public confession - what does that accomplish?Nechama Leibowitz says that "The first step in making amends after acknowledging his guilt is confession - oral confession. This confession is obligatory on all transgressors". In Mishneh Torah, his great codification and commentary on Jewish law, Maimonides says, "Regarding every command of the Torah, whether positive or negative, a man who has transgressed any one of them, deliberately or inadvertently, when he makes amends and turns away from his sin, is obliged to confess before the L-rd - blessed is He. Oral confession is implied and this confession is a positive command" (Hilchot Teshuvah 1:1). He then qualifies that by adding, "It is very praiseworthy for a person who repents to confess in public and to make his sins known to others, revealing the transgressions he committed against his colleagues ... as it states 'He who conceals his sins will not succeed' (Proverbs 28:13). However, in regard to sins between man and and God, it is not necessary to publicise - indeed, revealing them is arrogant"2 (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:5). Sefer HaChinuch gives a full explanation of the need for confession: "At the root of the precept lies the reason that by the avowal of sin by one's own mouth, the thought and perception of the sinner is revealed - that in truth he believes that his every action is known and revealed before G-d, blessed is He. Moreover, by mentioning the sin in detail and expressing remorse over it, he will be more careful another time that it should not bring him to grief. After saying with his mouth, 'Thus and this did I do, and I was foolish in my actions,' he will be restrained not to go back and do so again; and, as a result, he will be acceptable before his creator."
According to most dictionaries, the word 'confess'3 has two principal but closely connected meanings. The first is "to acknowledge or avow a fault, crime, misdeed, weakness, etc.", "to declare or acknowledge (one's sins), especially to God or a priest in order to obtain absolution". This is the meaning seen in our text and many verses from the Torah, both individually: "when he realizes his guilt in any of these and confesses the sin he has committed" (Vayikra 5:5, ESV), and corporately: "Aharon shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins" (16:21, ESV). Following confession, relationship with G-d can be restored: "If they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against Me, and also in walking contrary to Me ... then I will remember My covenant with Ya'akov, and I will remember My covenant with Yitzkhak and My covenant with Avraham, and I will remember the land" (26:40, ESV). This idea is familiar to the Psalmist as well: "I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the L-RD'; and You forgave the guilt of my sin" (Psalm 32:5, NASB). James also has it in view, when he writes, "Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed" (James 5:16, NASB).
But the second meaning of 'confess' is perhaps even more important. Still based on an oral statement, this is: "to own or admit as true", "to acknowledge one's belief or faith in; declare adherence to". Rav Sha'ul is thinking this way when he writes, "that at the name of Yeshua every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Messiah Yeshua is Lord" (Philippians 2:10-11, ESV). This has an element both of admitting the truth of Yeshua's lordship and declaring allegiance to Him at the same time. Just as confessing sin is the first step towards repentance, so confessing Yeshua is the first step towards salvation: "if you confess with your mouth Yeshua as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved" (Romans 10:9, NASB). John underlines the importance this confession in the spiritual world and tells us how to distinguish spirits: "every spirit that confesses that Messiah Yeshua has come in the flesh is from G-d; and every spirit that does not confess Yeshua is not from G-d" (1 John 4:2-3, NASB). This is one reason for the almost obsessive behaviour among some believers in insisting on hearing someone's personal testimony of salvation to be sure that they do make that confession.
This now brings us almost full circle, back to the issue of public confession. Our confession of faith must be public, both in word and deed - that is, we must be consistent, otherwise our confession ay be compromised. Yeshua give us the reason for this: "Everyone therefore who shall confess Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever shall deny Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 10:32-33, NASB). Our confession - our acknowledgement - of Yeshua in this world is the guarantee that He will confess - acknowledge - us as belonging to Him before the Father in the next world. If we are not prepared to acknowledge Him in this world, then He will not acknowledge us in the next.
How is this to be done? Yeshua gives us the big picture: "Do not worry about what to say or how to say it; when the time comes, you will be given what you should say. For it will not be just you speaking, but the Spirit of your heavenly Father speaking through you" (Matthew 10:19-20, CJB). That seems to cover formal occasions, but what about the many smaller and much more frequent times when we are simply talking with people on an ad-hoc basis? The same rules apply; being forced and trying to follow a script as if we were in a call centre doing tele-marketing is going to sound just like tele-marketing: dry, artificial and lifeless. We cannot constantly watch the conversation and turn every topic into a mini gospel presentation; no-one will ever want to talk to us. If we simply chat naturally, probably not directly mentioning the L-rd at all unless someone asks, but always being cheerful, hopeful and realistically optimistic, sharing our joy and hope in an easy-going relaxed way, then people will gravitate towards us and be drawn by our open manner. Soon they will ask the questions that we want to answer, but even if they don't, we are still being a witness that there is more to life than the usual round of the world's pursuits and values. Asking questions about other people and listening to their replies goes a long way; many people don't have anyone really listen to them from one year's end to the next - everyone is too busy talking about themselves. As you listen, you can show concern and care and later you can pray for them. Then when the opportunity comes - and it will - be ready to share why your life is different, as Peter said, "always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15, ESV).
1. - Also used in classical Greek literature for declaring or revealing a secret or something hidden.
2. - Rashi comments that publicising sins against G-d is dishonourable to G-d for it publicly demonstrates that people sin against Him, while b. Berachot 34b relates that a person who makes a public confession of this nature appears to imply that he is not embarrassed about his behaviour.
3. - 'Confess' is a modern form of the mediaeval Latin word confessare, in turn from the Vulgate Latin confiteri, to confess or acknowledge.
Further Study: 2 Corinthians 13:5-9; 1 John 1:8-10; Isaiah 45:23-24
Application: How could you more effectively confess Yeshua today? If you don't move in circles where people need to hear your confession, why not ask G-d whether He wants you to change your social life so that you can move in different circles.
© Jonathan Allen, 2013
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