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B'Midbar/Numbers 15:22 And if you make a mistake and not do all of these commandments that the L-rd spoke to Moshe ...
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Here is one of the Torah's expressions of grace: if - or perhaps that should be 'when' - you inadvertently fail to carry out one of the commandments, there is a way to recover; it isn't simply "Game Over!" This was great news for the ancient Israelites and it is great news for us too today. Verses 22-26 address inadvertent sin committed by the community. The verb - the Qal 2mp prefix form of the root , to err, sin through ignorance ( - is here translated "make a mistake" and is plural: it is addressed to the whole Israelite community. The NJPS translates the opening phrase as "If you unwittingly fail to observe ..." confirming that a genuine mistake, once corrected and covered, is not fatal.HaShem understands that we are only human and will have these accidental black spots. This is a mistake made by the whole community, perhaps by failing to interpret a law correctly, or by failing to appreciate a situation fully. Verse 26 sums up that the whole community, including any sojourners will be forgiven, because it was a mistake.
In the following verses, 27-29, the Torah makes the same provision for individuals and - after all - it is more likely that any one person will make a mistake than the whole community. Individuals, whether an Israelite or a foreigner living among them, can be forgiven for genuine mistakes. This might be, for example, a child of divorced parents being brought up outside the community, so unaware of either the existence of a commandment or how that commandment is implemented. A step further, the individual might be someone who is Jewish but thinks they are Gentile so doesn't know that the commandments apply to them. Verse 28 declares that when the priest makes atonement for him, the individual will be forgiven. Lastly, in verse 29, the Torah confirms that both Israelites and sojourners can and will be forgiven in exactly the same way: it was a mistake.
Verses 30-31, however, draw a critical line in the sand. While a genuine mistake is a mistake and forgiveness is available, forgiveness is not extended to those - be they citizens or strangers - who deliberately choose to disobey HaShem, whether by doing something forbidden or by not doing something required. The Torah describes this as defiantly reviling HaShem, spurning Him and rejecting the commandments. Such a person shall be cut off from the people and remains guilty. While there is grace for mistakes, deliberate knowing sin choices cannot be atoned for or covered up in this way. A concrete example here is the way the Torah distinguishes between murder and manslaughter, clearly ruling that "the murderer must be put to death" (B'Midbar 35:17, NJPS), while a manslayer - "who has killed a person unintentionally" (v. 11, NJPS) - may flee to one of the cities of refuge. Gordon Wenham observes that "murder is planned in advance, whereas manslaughter is committed by accident or in the heat of the moment."1
What categories or types of sin are covered by mistake recovery? Are these just cultic or ritual issues, or does it apply to the commandments in general? The Torah itself seems to suggest that it applies to any command in the Torah: "anything that the L-RD has enjoined upon you through Moshe -- from the day that the L-RD gave the commandment and on through the ages" (B'Midbar 15:23, NJPS). As a textual level, Jacob Milgrom reports that, "there is no clear antecedent for 'these'. There are two possibilities. The first is that 'these' refers to a body of laws found elsewhere. The other possibility is that 'these' refers to the two previous laws in the chapter, the sacrificial supplements (vv. 1-10) and the khallah (vv. 17-21)." Needless to say, the rabbis have a different answer!
Rashbam tells us that "the Sages understand this passage to refer to idolatry." The Sforno amplifies this - "According to tradition, this verse refers to the inadvertent transgression of idolatry (b. Horayot 8a)" - and adding that this was bound to happen, "since it was decreed that '[He] would make their offspring fall among the nations, scattering them among the lands' (Psalm 106:27, ESV); therefore it will not be unusual for them to err regarding idolatry when they return to the Land." Tanakh reports this happening among the exiles returning from Babylon - "They found written in the Teaching that the L-RD had commanded Moshe that the Israelites must dwell in booths during the festival of the seventh month" (Nehemiah 8:14, NJPS) and "At that time they read to the people from the Book of Moshe, and it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite might ever enter the congregation of G-d" (13:1, NJPS) - where the returnees 'find' things that they didn't know by reading the Torah.
But why do the Sages think this passage refers to idolatry? Because,Rashi explains, of the phrase "all of these commandments" - idolatry is like all of the commandments together. No-one violates all of the individual commandments by mistake, that would be impossible, so - based on Sifre 111 - Mizrachi says, "just as one who transgresses all of the commandments casts off the yoke of heaven and nullifies the covenant and acts brazenly, so too this commandment. And which commandments is this? This is idolatry." The Ramban disagrees, asking the question, "Can it really be that anyone who mistakenly fails to perform just one of the things he is commanded to do must bring a sacrifice, or that if he deliberately omits one of them he is to be cut off? Our verse actually refers to one who fails to do what G-d commands and does the opposite instead."
Listening carefully, we find a very similar thread in the Apostolic Writings. James tells us that "whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it" (James 2:10, ESV). Yeshua seems to be affirming that when He says, "whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:19, ESV); no differentiation there. Rav Sha'ul too, paraphrasing "Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them. And all the people shall say, 'Amen'" (D'varim 27:26, ESV), offers, "all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, 'Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them'" (Galatians 3:10, ESV). Those who knowingly - and, therefore, deliberately - disobey G-d today are in exactly the same position as an ancient Israelite who disobeyed G-d. It is at that moment, they decide to thumb their noses in God's direction; they have chosen their desires over G-d's instructions and that - not to mince words - is idolatry!
But wait a minute! Isn't our text all about the mistake recovery mechanism; accepting that we all make mistakes so G-d provides a means of recovering from a position of inadvertent, unwitting or ignorant sin? Don't we still have that mechanism today? Certainly we do. Human nature has not changed and neither has G-d's complete understanding and knowledge of His creatures. We can still approach G-d and seek His forgiveness for our mistakes. Although we no longer offer a blood sacrifice, the blood of Yeshua still cleanses us from mistakes if we admit what we have done, attempt to correct any harm done and resolve not to do it again.
Jewish and Christian religious logic goes a step further and posits that G-d allows recovery from deliberate sin as well on the grounds that while it may have been a deliberate choice at the time, we now realise that it was a big mistake. We call this step repentance: a change of heart, a turning away from our previous position of rebellion and disobedience to one where we try to make amends and say 'sorry' in order to seek forgiveness. "If we had only known ...", we argue, so it must have been a mistake. Only continuing sin, with no thought of repentance or confession is therefore rebellious and defiant, and remains unforgivable.
Most church liturgies include some form of the General Confession at the start of a worship service, in which we confess to G-d - although He already knows, so really we are only declaring the truth about ourselves - that we have disobeyed Him and we ask Him to forgive us. A typical example looks like this:
Almighty G-d, our heavenly Father, we have sinned against You and against our fellow men, in thought and word and deed, in the evil we have done and in the good we have not done, through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault.
There, in the last few phrases you can see the mistake clause - the ignorance and weakness - followed by the deliberate sin which, because we are now confessing it, we are asking Him to count as a mistake and therefore eligible for forgiveness. The Bible assures that this is what G-d wants: He is "patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Peter 3:9, ESV).
1. - Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers, TOTC, (Nottingham, IVP, 1981), page 146.
Further Study: Psalm 130:1-5; Isaiah 55:7; Romans 5:8-9
Application: Do you have any mistakes on your conscience - things you said or did that were foolish, that you didn't understand, that you had no idea of the consequences? Then bring them to G-d right now and confess your weakness and folly in order to find His peace and forgiveness in the name of Yeshua.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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