Strength for the Journey: "The Asp's Poison" – Numbers 5:11-31

Though you may have heard differently back in your school days – I have some news for you: Cleopatra probably didn’t die of an “Asp” bite to her bosom. According to modern toxicologists, “Cleopatra actually used a mixture of hemlock, wolfs bane and opium to end her life.” The name of the snake as an Asp is actually also inaccurate –it actually referred to an assortment of venomous snake species found in the Nile region – but would likely have been the Egyptian cobra – if she used a snake at all. It is true that in the end of dynastic Egypt and into the period of Roman domination, the asp was a decorative symbol of royalty in some court art – a mascot if you will. If that is how we mean it – then she died BIT by the throne itself – as did many rulers who tried to withstand the inevitable rise of Roman domination on their shores. That would not have been an inaccurate assessment.

It is also true that in both ancient Egypt and Greece, an asp posseses potent venom that made it useful as a means of execution for criminals who were thought deserving of a more dignified death than that of typical executions. According to the Platonist philosopher Plutarch (a younger contemporary of the Apostle Paul), Cleopatra tested various deadly poisons on condemned persons and animals for daily entertainment and concluded that the bite of the Egyptian Cobra was the least terrible way to die; the venom brought sleepiness and heaviness without spasms of pain. In 2010, a German historian along with a toxicologist came to the conclusion the old version of her death was highly unlikely. At the same time, that explanation will not quickly leave us, because it is the one so artfully explained in William Shakespeare’s writings by none other than Cleopatra herself in Act V, scene II of “Antony and Cleopatra” – and you know the “movie version” wins over the actual historical event most every time.

You may be asking, “Why are we discussing venomous snakes?” Because most all of us have suffered from the bite of one that slithered across our path more than once. He is not a cobra… but he possesses a deadly venom. He is a snake whose venom is jealousy. King Saul suffered from its pangs when he heard the people say: “Saul has killed his thousands, David tens of thousands..” It nearly drove him mad – and jealousy will do that. In today’s lesson we want to deal with an antidote that God gave for jealousy. Left to itself, the poison will kill you. It will poison you, and then poison the relationship – killing every good thing once found between you. Like bitterness – jealousy can be remedied alone (one can come to peace without another person’s help) – but it is much more difficult to do if a suspicion of violation in the relationship is not confronted and settled.

Remember that God’s instruction in the “Law of Jealousy” was part of a bigger picture that we began to sketch out in the previous lesson in Numbers 3-5. We saw the principle in our study that:

Key Principle: God placed specific barriers and fences to protect the people, and wanted the people to pay close attention to follow the Word He has given concerning contacts and divisions among people.

Before we look at the “Law of Jealousy”, let’s set the text well…Numbers 5 includes commands to three kinds of people. In today’s lesson we will briefly review the first two of them, and then focus on the third. The three kinds are:

1. People who needed to get out of the camp (5:1-4).
2. People who needed to get right with God (5:5-8).
3. People who needed to get straight with one another (5:11-31).

Each of these should be handled carefully, and separately…

First, there were people who were defiled by contact with the dead or by manifestations of bodily discharges. They needed separation.

Numbers 5:1 “Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Command the sons of Israel that they send away from the camp every leper and everyone having a discharge and everyone who is unclean because of a dead person. … so that they will not defile their camp where I dwell in their midst.”…

In review, let’s pick up only five quick highlights of what we said in the previous lesson:

1. Passages like this can easily be dismissed as only pertaining to the health conditions of the ancient desert – but we should look more broadly to the principle behind the separation barrier.

2. In the Bible the term defilement isn’t necessarily about specific sin in the life of the person who is defiled. Defilement may mean that you aren’t ready to serve God in your function at that moment.

3. God knows that His people are not always wise concerning their own limitations. They are often tempted to keep going, even when we should stop. Ineligibility may help stem off burnout. Here were the reasons one was set aside in the text:

• Sickness: People who were are sick, especially with something that was “catching”..

• Discharges: People with an active blood seepage. Not due to specific sin, but due to a sinful state – it is a status problem, not necessarily a participation problem.

• Death of a loved one: People who are handling the burial of their loved ones. I believe there is a Biblical case to be made for suspension of service by ministry people who have lost their spouse. I think it is both unwise and in my view unbiblical for them to continue right away. A time of grief should be granted and enforced by those involved in leadership.

4. The ultimate point of all this was that people weren’t always ready to keep going – even if we thought we NEEDED to for the sake of others. God was introducing a condition to get them to slow down and look at life differently.

5. Finally, but very importantly, we made the point that we are not more compassionate than God – nor do we have a better sense of our REAL responsibility than He does. He made rules so that REAL compassion and true responsibility could thrive.

Second, there were people that were caught up in sin. They needed repentance, restoration and in some cases to pay restitution.

The text turned from those who were told to go away from others because of defilement, to others who were told that their actions had separated them from others and they needed to be restored.

Numbers 5:5: “Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 6 “Speak to the sons of Israel, ‘When a man or woman commits any of the sins of mankind, acting unfaithfully against the LORD, and that person is guilty, 7 then he shall confess his sins which he has committed, and he shall make restitution in full for his wrong and add to it one-fifth of it, and give it to him whom he has wronged

Skipping a pebble across the text for a review, we should not forget four things we discussed:

• People who take from others what they have not rightfully earned need to be dealt with openly – but with a view toward restoring them. God instructed the way to make it right, not just angry discipline about wrong.

• It was necessary not only to give back what you took, but to go the extra mile and give back MORE.

• If we have wronged another, Jesus said it was more important that you make it right then you offer your gift to God at the altar.

• Become the honest worker you would want in someone YOU hire to work for you. Your testimony will increase, and God will use your faithfulness as a platform to reach others.

** NOTE: Numbers 5:5-8 relate to the sinner corrected, but Numbers 5:9-10 do not. It is a clarification of the ownership of gifts given to those in the priesthood. It says: 5:9 ‘Also every contribution pertaining to all the holy gifts of the sons of Israel, which they offer to the priest, shall be his. 10 ‘So every man’s holy gifts shall be his; whatever any man gives to the priest, it becomes his.’” This was a simple clarification brought up in light of the previous comments, and sought to make clear that all gifts passed to a priest became the property of that priest. It was given in the context of theft, so that it was clear that a gift constituted a change of ownership, and was irrevocable.

Now the text turned to where we began – our poisonous slithering friend, that strikes hard with the venom of jealousy…

Third, there were couples divided by jealous suspicion. They needed inspection, counsel and in cases without foundation – restoration (Numbers 5:11-31).

1: Accusations are costly, and need to be taken seriously.

Whether or not the spouse is guilty – the accusing spouse must present to the Lord both her and an offering. This cannot be frivolous, or he will lose valuable food supplies.

Numbers 5:11 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 12 “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘If any man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him, 13 and a man has intercourse with her and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband and she is undetected, although she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act, 14 if a spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife when she has defiled herself, or if a spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife when she has not defiled herself, 15 the man shall then bring his wife to the priest, and shall bring as an offering for her one-tenth of an ephah of barley meal; he shall not pour oil on it nor put frankincense on it, for it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of memorial, a reminder of iniquity.

Even suspicion is costly. Doubt robs the family. How much better for each of them to have maintained their inner heart and kept themselves both pure and uncompromised. In many cases, there is more to the jealousy than simply time unaccounted for – there is a deep mistrust that already exists and may have been fostered. Some time should be put into keeping clean accounts with one another.

The old saying is true: “Most of our suspicions of others are aroused by what we know about ourselves.” Often people who let their mind wander and heart go astray easily worry about their partner – because they know themselves.

Mark Hensley wrote that “Duke University did a study on “peace of mind.” The highest six factors found to contribute greatly to emotional and mental stability are:

1. The absence of suspicion and resentment. Nursing a grudge was a major factor in unhappiness.

2. Not living in the past. An unwholesome preoccupation with old mistakes and failures leads to depression.

3. Not wasting time and energy fighting conditions you cannot change. Cooperate with life, instead of trying to run away from it.

4. Forcing yourself to stay involved with the living world. Resist the temptation to withdraw and become reclusive during periods of emotional stress.

5. Refusing to indulge in self-pity when life hands you a raw deal. Accept the fact that nobody gets through life without some sorrow and misfortune.

6. Cultivating the virtues—love, humor, compassion and loyalty, etc.

The text of 5:11-15 do not presuppose guilt, but it is a foregone conclusion that before a couple would bring potential shame on their house – one would feel certain there was something to the accusation. There was a specific cost, and a specific person to take the problem to – because God initiated the Law. God isn’t happy with buried sin or open suspicion. There must be a remedy.

2: Sin puts a distance between God and man.

Confronting the accusation of sin needs to be direct between the sinner and God.

5:16 ‘Then the priest shall bring her near and have her stand before the LORD,

We have often declared it – but we cannot neglect to say it. Sin may affect others, but it is chiefly directed against God Himself. As a result, when I am wrong with another, I am wrong with BOTH them, and the God that made them.

Do you wonder why God didn’t direct the issue to a CIVIL authority as we would in our modern culture? The issue to God was that suspicion alone, let alone hidden guilt, would defile the whole of the congregation. You know how it goes. First, he suspects that she is cheating. Next, after sleepless nights his best friend asks him what’s wrong. Soon after, a whole group of people are speculating on what went wrong, who the offending party may have been, and what is wrong with the straying spouse. In a matter of a short time, some will weigh in as “experts” on the behavior of the two. The whole process has all the reliability of the shopping line magazine that proclaims there are “alien babies growing among us!” We live in a time of too much talk without substantial knowledge. America is swamped with experts on the inner thinking of celebrities and politicians – as though we truly know what they are doing, let alone thinking.

When a woman stood accused of infidelity, the priest brought her near to God. There she stood – alone for a time before God. Any resistance she may have had that hardens one’s heart – was challenged and softened before God’s face. If she were guilty, I suspect she would have been very apt to say so before the drinking of the water began.

Maybe that is our problem. Maybe we sin, and rather than get alone with God and face Him because of the way we have acted – we carry on the charade that we love and respect Him. We act like it surely must be someone else who is the cause of the disunity and disrespect for God in our time – surely it isn’t OUR FAULT.

Perhaps if believers took the time to get alone with God, to focus on His Divine inspection – they would recapture a sensitivity to sin in their life. For some of us, time alone with God suggests a chilly sense of sweeping guilt. For others, it is nothing of the kind. If we develop time with God, if we allow Him to step into our guilty presence and open ourselves to feel the warm wash of His cleansing – “alone time” will not be something to be avoided. The fresh feeling you had when you came to Jesus and He washed you thoroughly can be your experience all over again – but you must get alone with Him.

Get rid of religious distraction. Shut the radio and iPod off. Get far from everyone else in your heart. Really focus on placing yourself before Him. He wants to hear your voice – even in your guilt.

3: The defilement of hidden sin will deeply corrupt the worship place – defiling countless others who do not know why!

God used that place to indicate guilt or innocence. The first sip was water mixed with dust from the worship center is put into the water.

5:17 and the priest shall take holy water in an earthenware vessel; and he shall take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water.

Don’t forget that your personal sin has communal implications. A Sunday School teacher that is hiding lust is impacting the whole body of Messiah. An usher with an anger and bitterness issue is hindering God’s open flow of life in the local body. Our sin is not irrelevant – it is very powerfully affecting others – even if we cannot see it. The worship center was affected by DIRT brought in through sin, and the worship center’s DUST would be employed to deal with the problem.

If she is innocent, the water should be a sweet drink – for it will clear suspicion. God will vindicate what she has been saying – and suspicion should evaporate. It will be based on God’s power – not her honesty! Think about the sweetness of no longer hearing a whispering over her shoulder – because GOD declared her innocent.

Charles Bridges in his commentary on Proverbs explains the quiet whispers this way: “We may seem to make light of the tale brought to our ears, and wholly to despise it. But the subtle poison has worked. ‘Suppose it should be true. Perhaps, though it may be exaggerated, there may be some ground for it.’ The thought indulged for only a moment brings suspicion, distrust, coldness: and often it ends in the separation of chief friends.”

4: Even the accusation was a tarnish against God’s glory in her honor – the truth of innocence had to be cleared!

Letting her hair down, the priest and the woman will stand before God while an offering is submitted to God for His approval. Both her and her husband should avoid getting to this point if at all possible.

5:18 ‘The priest shall then have the woman stand before the LORD and let the hair of the woman’s head go loose, and place the grain offering of memorial in her hands, which is the grain offering of jealousy, and in the hand of the priest is to be the water of bitterness that brings a curse.

God referred to hair as symbolism on a number of occasions. In the Nazarite vow of Numbers 6 and in the vow language of Leviticus 14 – hair was symbolic, and shaving was symbolic. In the case of women, Paul made the point that her hair represented her GLORY (1 Cor. 11). Here, the accusation meant that a stain would stand over her life- unless God could rescue her and vindicate her. Her hair was let down before God.

In several idiom dictionaries, the phrase “let your hair down” had specific meaning. Look for a moment at these:

Fig. to tell [someone] everything; to tell one’s innermost feelings and secrets. Let your hair down and tell me all about it. Come on. Let your hair” and “to relax and enjoy yourself without worrying what other people will think” as in: It’s nice to let your hair down once in a while and go a bit wild. (From the Online Idiom dictionary by Farlex).

It appears to me that both of these senses should apply. Standing before God, I should not be concerned about anyone else’s view of my life. His is the one that matters. I should be able to relax and tell the whole truth. Real intimacy with God forces pretense out. God wants to walk with you the way He did in the Garden BEFORE sin entered the world. You who know Christ are the only ones on the earth with which he can sojourn in that way!

5: Sin needed to be confronted and confessed or denied and rejected – and the wages needed to be made clear.

5:19 ‘The priest shall have her take an oath and shall say to the woman, “If no man has lain with you and if you have not gone astray into uncleanness, being under the authority of your husband, be immune to this water of bitterness that brings a curse; 20 if you, however, have gone astray, being under the authority of your husband, and if you have defiled yourself and a man other than your husband has had intercourse with you” 21 (then the priest shall have the woman swear with the oath of the curse, and the priest shall say to the woman), “the LORD make you a curse and an oath among your people by the LORD’S making your thigh waste away and your abdomen swell; 22 and this water that brings a curse shall go into your stomach, and make your abdomen swell and your thigh waste away.” And the woman shall say, “Amen. Amen.”

She confessed before God deliberately and completely. The woman verbally swore an oath before the Lord to ask for the curse or clean judgment. The woman must show that she clearly agrees to the God revealing the hidden – if there is anything hidden. If she is not guilty, this will be a simple matter. If she is guilty, perhaps she believes, as many people do, that either God is not real, or not able to see what she is truly doing.

It is a good and healthy thing to recite all the things that would result from a sinful choice BEFORE I engage in the activity.

Randy Alcorn wrote words to those of us in ministry, but the same words can be used for your life as well, in his article in Leadership Magazine: “What Happens When you fall”: The Consequences of a Moral Tumble:

• I grieve the Lord who redeemed me when I tumble.
• I drag His sacred name into the mud.
• I forget I will one day look Jesus the righteous judge in the face and give account of my actions. I will stand there without an answer.
• I begin my journey following in the footsteps of those who have gone before that have forsaken their ministries and caused me in the past to shudder.
• I inflict untold hurt on Nancy, my faithful friend and loyal wife. I lose Nancy’s respect and trust, hurting my beloved daughters, Rachel and Angie.
• I destroy my credibility with my children.
• If my blindness should continue or my wife should be unable to forgive, I may end up losing my wife and my children forever.
• I cause shame to my family.
• I lose my self respect.
• I form memories and flash backs that could plague future intimacy with my wife.
• I waste years of ministry training and experience for a long time, and perhaps permanently.
• I undermine the faithful example of other hard working Christians in our community.
• I would be bringing great pleasure to Satan.
• I would be heaping enormous judgment on the person with whom I was committing adultery.
• I could possibly bear the physical consequences of my sin with diseases such as gonorrhea, syphilis, clomidia, herpes or aids.
• I could even infect Nancy, or in the case of aids, causing her death.
• I would bring shame and hurt to fellow Pastors and elders: (Names).
• I would invoke life long embarrassment on myself.

The old adage is true: “Pure love and suspicion cannot dwell together: at the door where the latter enters, the former makes its exit.”

6: Every sinner hiding sin needs to know the weight of a LIE to God.

5:23 ‘The priest shall then write these curses on a scroll, and he shall wash them off into the water of bitterness. 24 ‘Then he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings a curse, so that the water which brings a curse will go into her and cause bitterness. 25 ‘The priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy from the woman’s hand, and he shall wave the grain offering before the LORD and bring it to the altar; 26 and the priest shall take a handful of the grain offering as its memorial offering and offer it up in smoke on the altar, and afterward he shall make the woman drink the water.

Another dramatic step of seeing the indictment in writing added solemnity to the occasion. Insuring the woman is fully aware of the weight of the moment, the priest wrote out the curse, and then washed the words into the water cup of bitterness. She would have to INGEST her words – to drink them in.

7: God loves to clear the innocent, but God will not withhold judgment on the guilty who are hiding sin. God worked in the woman’s body to prove her or curse her.

5: 27 ‘When he has made her drink the water, then it shall come about, if she has defiled herself and has been unfaithful to her husband, that the water which brings a curse will go into her and cause bitterness, and her abdomen will swell and her thigh will waste away, and the woman will become a curse among her people. 28 ‘But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, she will then be free and conceive children.

What a grand moment, when she would be set free from suspicion and God would show her word to be TRUE. Her husband would be silenced about this, and she would be blessed by God.

8: The truth is the beginning of the healing point. The purpose of coming before the Lord was to be absolutely sure nothing was left unanswered.

5:29 ‘This is the law of jealousy: when a wife, being under the authority of her husband, goes astray and defiles herself, 30 or when a spirit of jealousy comes over a man and he is jealous of his wife, he shall then make the woman stand before the LORD, and the priest shall apply all this law to her.

9: God holds us responsible to TRY to make things right before Him and each other. If you do all you can do to make it right, the sin is left on the other.

5:31 Moreover, the man will be free from guilt, but that woman shall bear her guilt.’”

The end sounds funny, but what the writer is trying to say is simple: If she was guilty – her sin would be her fault. Unfaithfulness isn’t always a two way street. If he walked through the steps and found her unfaithful – his heart would be broken. God does not heap the bad decisions and sinful choices of one on the record of the other.

I am not suggesting that sometimes we don’t play a negative role in the eye of our spouse – I am stating that my sinful choices are MY ISSUE – and so are yours. Don’t blame them. God knows your heart – and THEY are not the primary issue – your roaming and rebellious heart is!

God placed specific barriers and fences to protect the people, and wants believers to pay close attention to follow the Word He has given concerning contacts and divisions among people. When God placed specific barriers and fences – they were to protect the people and heal divisions among us. We dare not re-write the rules.