Strength for the Journey: “Bench Time” – Numbers 19:7-22

riding bench1Did you ever get BENCHED by your coach? One of the most emotionally challenging times for any athlete is the time they have been “benched”. This is a time to watch, encourage those on the field and stay engaged… but that is hard to do. Bench warmers invariably become critics, especially if they are benched by the coach for reasons that are not mutually agreed. Why bench a perfectly good player? Sometimes they are ineligible to play at that moment because they have an attitude problem. Perhaps they have been so overstressed physically, the coach has decided a break from the game will prevent a breakdown in their body. In any case, the best athlete’s know they cannot run “wide open” all the time without breaks, and they aren’t necessarily the most qualified person to know when they need to be set down for a time. Athletes have been known to continue to unwisely play with injuries rather than go to the bench. Benching is part of the coach’s job. Here’s the problem: bench time will only truly help if they will truly use that time to recoup their energy, and restore their vigor for the game ahead. Bench time doesn’t change our attitude, it just gives us time to think about it. The choice to change is ours.

That is perhaps a “cryptic way” to introduce the story of our text in Numbers 19. God benched workers in His service, and they hadn’t done anything disobedient or wrong – He simply took them out of the lineup and called them “ineligible” for a time. One Biblical term for this ineligible state is the Biblical term “DEFILED”. Especially for modern Christians, we need to recognize the ancient context for this term. For many Christians, they read the term “defiled” in the Bible and ALWAYS think of it as a reflection of some specific sin committed by the defiled one – when that is often not the case. Sometimes God set aside an obedient and committed follower for the purpose of giving them specific time to renew their walk with Him while He cared for the physical, spiritual and emotional effects that living in a fallen world had on them.

Key Principle: God knows how to bring comfort, but we don’t always know how to receive it. We must carefully open our hearts to God’s “washing and waiting” work, when God benches us, to be fully restored and equipped to face the future.

This will take a few minutes to develop in our text, but if we are patient, there is great reward in this truth. God knows there are times in our lives that we need to get alone with Him and have Him bind up the wounds of our hearts from dealing with the blistering effects of sin – both in our world and in our lives. As we seek to understand this truth, let’s divide the text of Numbers 19 into three parts:

• Numbers 19:1-6 is the pattern of redemption – the ultimate payment for sin and its effects that must be judicially cared for before the face of a righteous God. Without the payment of sin’s debt, there is no washing and no resolution.

• Numbers 19:7-19 offer the practice of benching – some examples of specific cases of defilement. These offer a reminder that we have specific times in our lives that we need to stop, wash and wait. They aren’t about OUR sin, but about the fact that we live in a FALLEN WORLD. That reality, along with the reminders of our frailty, must remind us that we have times when God will bench His followers – because they need time off with Him to be restored.

• Numbers 19:20-22 contains verses that offer some purposes of benching – general defining statements that help us recognize the purposes God had for giving this law to our older brother Israel.

Again, not to confuse you, but to offer clarity, let me state two very important underlying assumptions of this study:

• First, modern believers who came to God through Jesus are not legally in view in the physical practice of the commands of Numbers. I am not a Jew, and I was not at Sinai making any covenant agreement with God – even in seed form. My ethnicity, so far as I know, had me physically in the loins of another people at the time. I am not suggesting that God wants us to kill bulls outside the camp. I am saying that He commanded Israel to do so, and then included the record of it in the Scripture. Since, as Paul reminded Timothy of old that “all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for doctrine, reproof and instruction”, we are looking for eternal principle in temporal law. In other words, what is revealed about the character and desires of our Changeless God in the actual and specific laws He gave to Israel of old? That is the point of the study. We don’t want to SPIRITUALIZE away the fact that they were told to kill bulls, we want to see the patterns in it that God intended us to see – so that we can address in our lives the things that move our Father’s heart.

• Second, we absolutely recognize that PART of the purpose of the laws given by God was for dealing with health issues: bacteria and disease spread in a people that did not know have access to our modern physical sciences and hygiene. We must make that point strongly. God told them what He told them, in part, to help them keep from spreading rampant disease amongst the camp of Israel (and later the nation of Israel). The fact is, though, that not all the laws that protected against the spread of disease are limited to that singular application of the text. Let’s take a look…

The Pattern of Redemption (Numbers 19:1-6)

In our last Numbers lesson, we spent time reviewing the incredibly important pattern found in the first part of this chapter. Again, we didn’t spiritualize away the bulls, but showed carefully that writers of the Christian Scriptures dropped back to the explanation of Numbers 19:1-6 to show how Messiah fit a pattern of redemption.

Take a look at the verse to renew our thinking…

Numbers 19:1 Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 2 “This is the statute of the law which the LORD has commanded, saying, ‘Speak to the sons of Israel that they bring you an unblemished red heifer in which is no defect [and] on which a yoke has never been placed. 3 You shall give it to Eleazar the priest, and it shall be brought outside the camp and be slaughtered in his presence. 4 Next Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle some of its blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times. 5 Then the heifer shall be burned in his sight; its hide and its flesh and its blood, with its refuse, shall be burned. 6 The priest shall take cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet [material] and cast it into the midst of the burning heifer.

When looking closely at the opening verses of the chapter, we made the points that:

• God defined what sin is and how to fix it. He did it throughout the Bible. Sin isn’t a behavior deemed by popular culture to harm humankind (in their ever-changing and limited moral mindset) – it is the violation of the stated will of the Creator of the Universe. In other words, if you dismiss a personal Creator, you open the floodgates to consensus morality. That is why modern men are swift to dismiss the Creator from the room.

• The sacrifice was to be made under the auspices of the priest, and outside the camp. The writers of the Gospels kept this pattern in mind when they highlighted the place and personnel involved in the Crucifixion story (as we saw in our earlier lesson).

• The sacrifice was to be made of a faultless bull, and it was to be totally destroyed – in that case reduced to ash. Both the guiltlessness of Messiah and the total forfeiture of His body followed that pattern.

• The accompanying of hyssop, purple cloth and wood all played a role in the sacrifice – something the New Testament writers point out in the scenes of Messiah’s death. There was a cross beam carried by Simon the Cyrene. There was a purple robe placed on the bleeding body of Messiah. There was a hussop brush hoisted to His mouth on the Cross.

The essential truth each point illustrated was simply this: God carefully offered both the instructions for a specific sacrifice, and a pattern for the future solution for sin that He eventually provided in Messiah’s coming and dying for us. Jesus came to replace Levitical “atonement law” with “total and complete justification”. As the writer of Hebrews argued, Sin was cared for ONCE FOR ALL at the Cross. It was a place of gruesome pain, foul smells, horrid punishment and bloody death. Messiah gave His life for us, and that satisfied God’s judicial requirement for redemption from the mutiny with God and brought the one and only escape from personal payment for sin by substituting Jesus in our place. The only continuing need we have is to ACCEPT THE GIFT. Without doing that, the gift lay in front of men and women, with no one choosing to unwrap it and take it as their own. Only acceptance of the gift activates the effect in an individual life. As one guy said recently: “You gotta grab it and keep it to call it your own!”

That was the pattern aspect of the Red Heifer’s sacrifice, and the application of it – as New Testament writers appropriately did –in the sacrifice of Messiah. That was a model that was to make the coming of Messiah’s story more evident as it unfolded. At the same time, the original purpose of the sacrifice was to gain the ash that had its own purpose in the story.

Follow the ashes back to the original story – and that will open the door to the second part of the chapter… The truth is disclosed that there were BENCH TIMES God has planned for followers to experience.

These were NOT because that follower had sinned – but because MAN HAD SINNED, and they lived in a fallen world that was swallowed up by the effects of the mutiny…

The Practice of Benching (Numbers 19:7-19):

God brought cases of defilement that required BENCHING of His followers. First, let’s establish that a believer could be BENCHED without doing wrong – because that needs to be demonstrated from the Scripture. Pick up the reading in Numbers 19:7-10:

Numbers 19:7 The priest shall then wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward come into the camp, but the priest shall be unclean until evening. 8 The one who burns it shall also wash his clothes in water and bathe his body in water, and shall be unclean until evening. 9 Now a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place, and the congregation of the sons of Israel shall keep it as water to remove impurity; it is purification from sin. 10 The one who gathers the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening; and it shall be a perpetual statute to the sons of Israel and to the alien who sojourns among them.

Note the three men that were defiled and in need of “bench time” in the verses.

• First, there was the PRIEST that had followed every requirement of God’s stated law in verses 1-6, but had HANDLED AN ANIMAL AS IT WAS SLAUGHTERED. He was to WASH and to WAIT until that evening (19:7).

• Next, there was the one who BURNED the sacrifice. He also obeyed, but he HANDLED THE CARCASS of the animal – and he was due to WASH and WAIT until that evening (19:8).

• Third, the man who GATHERED up the ashes of the red heifer when the fire completely consumed the animal was to do his work gathering and storing (19:9) and then he was to WASH and WAIT until the evening (19:10).

What is CLEAR was that ALL THREE were walking in obedience and doing what God told them to do. None of them were held back from doing God’s work because they were in sin, or walking opposed to God’s stated intent. In other words, you don’t have to be DOING WRONG to get put on the BENCH for a period of time by God.

If it wasn’t sin, then let me ask: “Why were they “benched” for a time?” One could argue effectively that the first two handled something that was a health hazard. That was much less likely to be the case in the third man – who was dealing with the ash, as opposed to the carcass. Handling ashes was far less likely to cause specific bacterial danger. What if the issue wasn’t simply bacteria? What if the health hazard was only PART of the picture? What if handling something sacred, something so sobering, so intertwined with the lost state of mankind had its own need to sit on the bench and reflect awhile? Keep that thought for a moment and then recognize why the ashes were to be kept. The were a solution for defilement both for Israel and those who lived among her. The ashes would be used to purify those defiled.. and the preparation of them was a HOLY ACT. It was surrounded in sober and careful practice, and followed by a “time out” of reflection and waiting.

Let me posit this: Even when you are walking in obedience to God, there are times when you will handle the issues related to and resulting from the mutiny since the “Fall of man” in very specific ways. In times like that, God may bench you for a time so that you can be comforted by Him and regroup under His gentle hand.

Remember the penalties of “the Fall” in the Garden back in Genesis 3:7?

“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings. 8 They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. 9 Then the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 He said, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” 11 And He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “The woman whom You gave [to be] with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.” 13 Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” And the woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

What came from the fall was:

• LOSS of INNOCENCE – “eyes were opened” (3:7a),
• DEATH of intrinsic positive SELF IMAGE – “knew they were naked” (3:7b),
• SHAME – “covered themselves” (3:7b);
• DISTANCE from God – “hid themselves” (3:8)
• GUILT – the FEAR to be seen of God – “I was afraid because I was naked” (3:10).
• BLAME: Man tried to blame the woman (3:12)! Woman blamed the tempter (3:13)!

Coming out of the Garden in chapter three, humankind encountered a new world. The rules were different from the ones that humanity was created to live within. Adam, his wife and his children were faced with adapting to a world that was alien to them. The distance created by rebellion left a vacuum in His heart that was shaped like God, but could quickly be filled with a self-enthroned man. Man lacked the intimate and loving work of the Father within, and he would face moment by moment the choice of yielding to God’s hand or being full of self.

Yet, something even more powerful came into being as a result of the Fall… Bigger than shame and guilt, more powerful than the urge to blame…blistering forth came the shackles of death, and the grief of separation. In fact, in the background to that cataclysmic moment, you can hear the words of Scripture in the anthem behind the scene… (Ezekiel 18:4, 20) “The soul who sins will die.” DEATH came from the Fall. Paul wrote it to the Romans: “The wages of sin is death…”

Look back in Numbers 19 for cases that defile – REASONS WHY ONE WAS BENCHED FOR A TIME:

One who handles a dead body, as in Numbers 19:11 The one who touches the corpse of any person shall be unclean for seven days. 12 That one shall purify himself from uncleanness with the water on the third day and on the seventh day, [and then] he will be clean; but if he does not purify himself on the third day and on the seventh day, he will not be clean. 13 Anyone who touches a corpse, the body of a man who has died, and does not purify himself, defiles the tabernacle of the LORD; and that person shall be cut off from Israel. Because the water for impurity was not sprinkled on him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is still on him. Very likely, this directed our thoughts back to the loved ones who carefully washed and prepared their brother, sister, mother or father for the grace. They hadn’t sinned; they were doing what they should do. At the same, the sinful state of fallen man brought death, and handling death brought time on the BENCH.

Those in the locus of the dead are defiled, even if they didn’t touch the person, as in Numbers 19:14 This is the law when a man dies in a tent: everyone who comes into the tent and everyone who is in the tent shall be unclean for seven days. 15 Every open vessel, which has no covering tied down on it, shall be unclean. Though the people in view were likely not those who handled their loved one’s body, they lived in the place where the loss was felt sorely. They watched and waited, as their loved one slipped away. They were BENCHED as well for a time.

One who handles the remains of the dead are defiled as in Numbers 19:16 Also, anyone who in the open field touches one who has been slain with a sword or who has died [naturally], or a human bone or a grave, shall be unclean for seven days. In view here may be one who happened upon a fallen one – whether they knew the person or not. It also regarded one who plowed up bones in a field, even if they didn’t know at the moment why these bones were present. They were BENCHED.

All three of these people – the one who handled the dying or cared for the body of their loved one, the one who lived in the place where their loved one died, and the one who happened upon the remains of one – whether they knew them or not – were all defiled. Again, there clearly was a health issue here – at least in the first two cases – but that doesn’t seem to be the whole story. Handling dried old bones presents very little danger more than the handling of other dirty and old objects. It seems like God wanted to say something MORE than just – “Get clean or you will spread disease!”

Let me offer a few observations without going very far from the text itself.

• First, passing through the end of life with a loved one is obviously exhausting and heart rending. The process of death is neither pretty nor a light-hearted matter. I am in that room often. It is HARD. It is SAD – in the best of circumstances. Even among believers, it feels terrible to know that they will not be a part of our daily lives this side of Heaven. The plain fact is that although “absent from the body, present with the Lord” is our loved one – we MISS THEM TERRIBLY. I sit with dear friends that have lost the other half of THEMSELVES. They struggle to smile because the pain is so real. They don’t lack faith. They just miss their loved one. Life isn’t the same on a planet that only has memories of them. I love my life here, but I admit that as the years pass, it gets harder as the shepherd in a place where I bury so many of my close friends… it comes with the work. You take the blessings with the challenges – that is life!

• Second, dealing with death, no matter how long we anticipate it – is a shock to our system. Grief is a PROCESS, and it doesn’t move by quickly. The deeper the love, the longer the grief. The five stages of grief defined by behaviorists are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These are the way we learn to cope with the one we lost – and no stage is simple. People are complex beings, and grief is a deep process. It comes in waves, and often creates inner turmoil that is incredibly unsettling – even to the most balanced among us.

Here are three simple truths that I believe can be gleaned from the BENCHING or DEFILEMENT text:

  • There is a specific time – immediately following the strain and shock of the death of a loved one – that we should NOT try to move on. In the text, there was a specific week of “down time”.
  • There was a specified process to get “cleansed” during that time. This is both physical and hygienic, and spiritual. The down time was not just to CRY, but a time to seek God and receive comfort from His hands. That is why the defilement was considered a SPIRITUAL MATTER – not just a physical threat to health.
  • There was a limit of time to be set aside. NO ONE thinks that grieving could have been completed in a week – NO ONE. The point is that there was to be an end to TIME OFF and TIME AWAY from the community. Everyone knew how long it was. There was no confusion of expectation. You took the week off, and you went through the process, then on the eighth day – still with a hole in your heart that missed your loved one – you GOT UP AND WENT BACK TO YOUR LIFE.

If you don’t hear carefully, what I am saying will sound COLD, and UNCARING. If you hear what I believe is part of the intent of the text – I think you will see that is NOT the case…Look for a moment at the verse that remind us “How to get clean” in defilement among our ancient brothers:

Numbers 19:17 Then for the unclean [person] they shall take some of the ashes of the burnt purification from sin and flowing water shall be added to them in a vessel. 18 A clean person shall take hyssop and dip [it] in the water, and sprinkle [it] on the tent and on all the furnishings and on the persons who were there, and on the one who touched the bone or the one slain or the one dying [naturally] or the grave. 19 Then the clean [person] shall sprinkle on the unclean on the third day and on the seventh day; and on the seventh day he shall purify him from uncleanness, and he shall wash his clothes and bathe [himself] in water and shall be clean by evening.

Note there is a specific number of days and a specified process. The fact remains that you cannot control the grieving process, but you can keep yourself from withdrawing back inside like a turtle in the midst of danger. There is a way that you can eventually get moving ahead in your life.

There is always a temptation to retreat from people in the pain process. God specified how long you should collapse into His arms, and when to get up. Never ending dramatic displays of pain were not acceptable. There was a process – a very painful process – but one that God brought by His own hand to comfort our broken hearts.

The Purposes of Benching (Numbers 19:20-22)

God didn’t create legislation without intention and purpose. He offers a command – but He also teaches us about ourselves, and our world. The end of the passage says:

Numbers 19:20 But the man who is unclean and does not purify himself from uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly, because he has defiled the sanctuary of the LORD; the water for impurity has not been sprinkled on him, he is unclean. 21 So it shall be a perpetual statute for them. And he who sprinkles the water for impurity shall wash his clothes, and he who touches the water for impurity shall be unclean until evening. 22 Furthermore, anything that the unclean [person] touches shall be unclean; and the person who touches [it] shall be unclean until evening.‘”

• Clearly, the text says that the mentioned cleansing process is REQUIRED. (19:20).

• In addition, the ramifications of being lax in this area are much bigger than just ONE FAMILY. It will affect the WORSHIP CENTER (19:20b).

• The condition wasn’t just related to the DESERT experience – they would carry it as a law for all their generations (19:21).

• Benching for defilement was God’s idea – and God’s prescription for those who were in contact with the extremity of the results of the Fall.

Let me suggest that God had a very important principle He wanted to communicate:

God knows how to bring comfort, but we don’t always know how to receive it. We must carefully open our hearts to God’s “washing and waiting” work, when God calls on it in us, to be fully restored and equipped to face the future.

In our rush ahead and “never look back” society, we forget how important a process of getting through the difficult times can be.

If we don’t take the time to receive God’s comfort and grow through the process – it will leave a scar on our lives. It did on mine, because I was too young to know this truth when it happened… I am reading from a People Magazine article called: ”The Birth of a Settlement” (November 1982) by James R. Gaines

James wrote: “Last July 2, a 27-year-old American emigrant living in the West Bank settlement of Tekoa was murdered. His name was David Rosenfeld. By nightfall, a young Arab from the tiny village of Ferdis had confessed to the killing. The next morning Israeli soldiers blew up the home of another suspect in Ferdis, Muhammad Ali Mubarak, 26; a dozen members of his family, including his father and mother, were committed to the streets…Born in Philadelphia, David [Rosenfeld] graduated from George Washington University with a B.A. in history in June 1979. That summer, two days after their wedding, David and Dorit Rosenfeld emigrated to Israel. Dorit’s first impression of Tekoa was dispiriting: She found it isolated, grim. But David saw in it every settler’s vision, the reclamation of his biblical homeland. An instant convert to the cause, he took to it with a convert’s zeal: He spoke to friends of the lush vegetation that would one day be coaxed from the barren hills that stretched out in every direction from his perch atop the Herodion, and as supervisor of that out-of-the-way site he dreamed of vastly expanding tourism… David was stabbed more than 80 times that morning. He had left his Uzi submachine gun at home. A few minutes later a young American archaeologist, Randy Smith, found him lying face down in the ticket office of the Herodion in a spreading pool of blood. Numbed by the sight, Smith found himself absently counting the wounds in David’s back. The young soldiers who came to the scene tried vainly to resuscitate David but soon gave up, sickened and openly weeping.”

I was arrested for a time, but after I was released later that day I went back to work. I shouldn’t have. Healing was required. I just didn’t know it. Psalm 126:5 says: “Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. 6 He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying [his] bag of seed, Shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves [with him].” Someone reminded me recently that: “It is helpful to remember that it is not the SORROW but the SOWING while weeping that brings forth future sheaves.” There is a process of washing and waiting – and then there is the working while weeping. Eventually, if we allow God to deal with our pain, we will feel it slipping ever so slowly away…