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B'Midbar/Numbers 15:30 And the person that acts with an uplifted hand ... he is blaspheming the L-rd
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The translation presented above is rather more literal than many English Bibles and the general understanding of the text. In the previous verses,HaShem has instructed the people about how to recover from mistakes; when individuals or the whole community inadvertently sin or fail to observe the commandments. HaShem explains that "it was an error, and for their error they have brought their offering; they shall be forgiven" (B'Midbar 15:25). But at the end of the block, we have this text as a caveat: if, on the other hand, someone sins deliberately (NJB) or intentionally (CJB), this amounts to blasphemy - brazenly reviling the L-rd, bringing His name into disrepute.
While theSeptuagint follows the Hebrew text quite closely, translating the phrase by the Greek phrase , "with a hand of arrogance or pride", Targum Onkelos switches the idiom to the Aramaic , "an uncovered head" - an image that may contribute to the Orthodox insistence on Jewish males wearing a kipa or having their heads covered as a sign of HaShem's authority over them. Rashi explains that the phrase "with a raised hand" means 'intentionally', while Rabbi Hirsch suggests that this is "not just conscious transgression of the law, but intentional rebellion against G-d." Ibn Ezra says that, "a person lifts his hand to capture attention and show that he has no fear - in this case, no fear of G-d. He need not even say anything; his attitude and expression are enough." Even Maimonides agrees: "The person shows impudence and seeks publicity; he opposes the law and resists it" (Guide 3:41).
Looking at the gesture itself, Gunther Plaut suggests that is "possibly referring to a clenched fist or similar gesture denoting public protest", but Jacob Milgrom provides the historical background: "the original setting of this metaphor is seen in the statues of Ancient Near East deities who were sculpted with an uplifted or outstretched right hand, bearing a spear, war axe or lightning bolt. The mighty acts of the G-d of Israel are described as being performed 'by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm' (D'varim 4:34, 5:15, 26:8). Thus this literary image is most apposite for the brazen sinner who commits acts in open defiance of the L-rd. The essence of this sin is that it is committed flauntingly." Rabbi Hirsch again: it "designates independence recognising no master."
Targum Onkelos makes another change to the text, softening the verb , "blasphemes", to "is angry against". Drazin and Wagner suggest that Onkelos is trying to protect the Israelite reputation; Heaven forbid that an Israelite should blaspheme HaShem, although he may be angry against Him. TheRashbam turns the action aside slightly, claiming that it "obviously refers to idolatry even according to the straightforward meaning of the text." Both of these try to take the offence away from obedience and into a spiritual area, but Milgrom is quite specific, reporting that "connotes the brazen violation of any of G-d's commandments." Ovadiah Sforno demonstrates how important this is: "'he has blasphemed HaShem' - and he shall not be granted atonement in this world until he dies, even if he repents out of fear of punishment. Therefore the repentance of Israel in regard to (the sin of) the spies was to no avail, as it says, 'Again you wept before the L-RD; but the L-RD would not heed your cry or give ear to you' (D'varim 1:45, JPS)." Even repentance cannot draw back from blaspheming G-d! Much rabbinic ink has been written to enable deliberate sin to be classed as unintentional sin - on the grounds of ignorance, emotional stress, illness or other reasons for not being in right command of one's actions - so that forgiveness should be obtainable. The ancient Sages used the example of Elisha ben Abuyah, who in spite of vast Torah learning was an apostate, and was visited by his pupil, Rabbi Meir, on his deathbed: "He went to him and appealed to him, 'Return in penitence.' He said to him, 'Will they accept me after all this?' He responded, 'Is it not written, You turn man to contrition (Psalm 90:31), even when one's life is crushed.' At that, Elisha ben Abuyah burst into tears and died. And Rabbi Meir rejoiced and said, 'It appears that my master passed away in the midst of repentance'" (Ruth Rabbah 6:4).
Yeshua also addresses the issue of sin that cannot be forgiven: "Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come" (Matthew 12:31-32, ESV). What does this mean and how should we understand it applying to us today? Is there really a sin for which we cannot be forgiven? Craig Keener suggests that "a heart can become so hard against G-d's evidence that conversion becomes impossible." Keener applies this to specifically as a warning to the Pharisees "who are on the verge of becoming incapable of repentance - the sign of their hardness of heart is their determination to reject any proof of Yeshua's divine mission, to the extent that they even attribute G-d's attestation of Yeshua to the devil."sup>2 David Stern explains that blaspheming or insulting the Ruach consists of "either (1) willfully continuing to deny the Gospel when the Holy Spirit has made clear to you that it is true, or (2) attributing the works of the Holy Spirit to the Adversary."sup>3 This would seem to fit Yeshua's immediate audience, but surely demonstrates that we need to be careful how we act and speak.
The writer to the Hebrews appears to agree with Yeshua, saying that, "it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of G-d and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of G-d to their own harm and holding Him up to contempt" (Hebrews 6:4-6, ESV). The use of the present tense "they are" and "holding up" gives a slight hope that this otherwise absolute impossibility can be tempered by James' advice: "My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins" (James 5:19-20, ESV). We must always try to reach out to those whose faith has wandered or crumbled and endeavour to bring them back, to soften their hearts and encourage repentance and a turning back to G-d.
So when the rubber hits the road, we need to ask ourselves some tough questions and then answer them honestly. Do we permit ourselves to sin deliberately against the L-rd? Do we sometimes choose to do the wrong thing, knowing that it is wrong, but thinking all the time either that the end justifies the means or that we'll say sorry later if it still seems to matter? There's a cunningly deceptive little saying that has crept across the Atlantic, which I first encountered over twenty years ago on the lips of a major in the US Air Force: "Sometimes, it's easier to get forgiveness than permission." We can use this to justify going ahead with something that we know breaks the rules or is against orders - and there is an underlying assumption that we think we know best what is necessary, expedient or desirable and that it will all come out right when we have done it - and then say 'sorry' later when our action has been proved right. This is simply not the way the kingdom of heaven works. We can always touch base, check in with the Commander-in-Chief and run something past Him, however briefly or however urgent the situation seems. Frequently, however, we know perfectly well before we ask that what we want to do is not in accordance with the kingdom rules and procedures. Our haste to do something now is often just an excuse for not asking or checking with the Boss.
Once having sinned - and we all know only too well the feeling we get when that happens - do we repent as soon as we come to our senses, try to make restitution if appropriate and ask for G-d's forgiveness? Or do we stiffen up, make excuses and hold out in defiance of the Spirit's promptings? Do we then come close to the unforgivable sin by piling what the Jewish commentators described as a flagrant or brazen attitude on top of the original problem? It's easily done and makes a bad situation worse by entrenched emotion. As Elisha ben Abuyah said, "Will they accept me after all this?" The answer is yes, if we will but humble ourselves and ask!
1. - A rabbinic translation, not exactly matched by any of the contemporary English translations.
2. - Craig Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 365-366.
3. - David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, (Clarkville, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992), 46.
Further Study: Psalm 25:8-10; Hebrews 10:29-31; 1 John 1:8-10
Application: Have you hardened your heart against the words or work of the Spirit in your life, so that your relationship with Yeshua seems stuck on hold? You need to get that worked out today, so why not 'phone home right now and make a start. You'll find The Boss is already waiting for your call!
Comment - 13:29 12Jun17 Barri Cae Seif: Wonderful and inspiring work. Thank you, loved the reflection from Stern and Keener
© Jonathan Allen, 2017
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