These OT readings can be hard to take sometimes. Their judgments seem harsh and extreme but we must never lose sight of context when studying the Bible and two key things apply here:
First, God is a holy God. The book of Numbers recounts the stories of people still learning who God is. The ink was barely dry on the Ten Commandments, so to speak. They were still out of breath following the Exodus from Egypt. Few men had met with God on the personal level we read about much later. God was in the process of revealing Himself. To Abraham, He was the Promise-Giver (and Keeper) and Guide. To Moses, He was the One he could meet face-to-face, but only when shielded from His intense glory. To many of the people, He was deliverer, yes, but also the One who didn’t meet all their demands and expectations. There was much still to learn.
Second, divine holiness extended into personal purity. As modern-day Christians, it is our ultimate desire to become more like Jesus – reflecting His image in us more clearly – and this motivates us to pursue holiness in our own lives. However, back then, there were different issues at stake. In practical terms, if this community was to survive the wilderness experience, they needed to be free of disease and immoral behaviour that could undermine the structure and integrity of their society.
We have read in previous chapters how holiness was to be instituted and safe-guarded within the Tabernacle and now, to extend that purity to the people, anyone with infectious diseases had to be sent away until such a time when they were pronounced clean by the priests. Nothing that might defile God’s people could be tolerated.
Standards of behaviour were rigorously upheld, too, and we read how seriously the priests should treat accusations and occurrences of unfaithfulness. God prizes fidelity so highly not just because marriage is the foundation of good community life, but because He intended it as a demonstration of His covenant love with His people. Marriage shouldn’t be marked by suspicion, jealousy or infidelity but by enduring commitment and unconditional love – which God would continue to demonstrate through succeeding generations.
Lord, open my eyes to see the truth in your word, even when it’s difficult. Show me what it means to be holy in my life today. Amen.