This post-modern generation of the industrialized West has lost sight of the power of the Oath. That is why there is so little understanding of the covenant terminology which establishes the context of humanity’s relationship with our Creator. An oath sworn in good faith is something far more powerful than a legal procedure. It is a spiritual transaction which makes an indelible mark on the parties who take part in it. That is why one’s conscience is troubled when even the least significant promises are broken. Something as simple as committing to be at a certain place at a specified time is a type of oath or covenant. Failing to keep that promise fosters disappointment, anger, and bitterness in the heart of the one who is expecting the appointment to be kept. Hopefully the one who broke the promise will make amends and resolve to keep such commitments in the future. However, if the promise-breaker develops a habit of showing up late, or not showing up at all, then eventually his or her conscience will no longer serve as a reminder about the transgression. And then the promise-breaker becomes something worse: an untrustworthy person.
If this is the case with something as simple as a promise to be on time, what can we say about more serious promises? There is an illustration which may help. J.R.R. Tolkien delved deeply into the subject of oaths and covenants in his epic works about Middle Earth. Perhaps his most memorable account is the oath made by the Men of the Mountains to fight against Sauron, an oath they did not keep. In The Return of the King, Aragorn explains the circumstances of this broken oath:
But the oath that they broke was to fight against Sauron, and they must fight therefore, if they are to fulfill it. For at Erech there stands yet a black stone that was brought, it was said, from Nümenor by Isildur; and it was set upon a hill, and upon it the King of the Mountains swore allegiance to him in the beginning of the realm of Gondor. But when Sauron returned and grew in might again, Isildur summoned the Men of the Mountains to fulfil their oath, and they would not: for they had worshipped Sauron in the Dark Years.
Then Isildur said to their king, “Thou shalt be the last king. And if the West prove mightier than thy Black Master, this curse I lay upon thee and thy folk: to rest never until your oath is fulfilled. For this war will last through years uncounted, and you shall be summoned once again ere the end.”
In Tolkien’s novel, Aragorn leads his companions to the realm of these dead oathbreakers, and as Isildur’s heir calls them to fulfil their oath by following him into battle against Sauron’s armies. They answer the call, and upon winning the victory are released at last to depart in the peaceful sleep of death.
In Tolkien’s story the oathbreakers are redeemed by the descendant of the king whom they had betrayed. Their answer to his call brings an end to the curse and the blessed peace they have sought through the ages. As is so often the case with Tolkien, he illustrates a profound principle first explained in the Scripture. Yet what we learn from Moses differs from Tolkien in one critical point: redemption from the curse of broken oaths, or vows, results not the peace of death, but in the promise of life.
This is the wisdom we gain from Nasso (Elevate) (Numbers 4:21-7:89), a Torah portion which covers two oaths and a blessing. The portion begins by explaining the duties of the Levites who are not part of the priesthood, followed by instructions to remove from the camp every leper and every unclean person. The reason for that instruction should be clear by now: the people of Israel are sanctified, meaning they are made holy and set apart for the Lord. That which brings defilement to their holy status must be removed so that the nation can function in its priestly role for all the nations. Once that business is complete, then comes instruction on the two oaths which further emphasize the holy nature of this nation.
The first oath, or vow, concerns a curse. Numbers 5:11-31 explains the procedure for dealing with a spirit of jealousy that motivates a man to suspect his wife of unfaithfulness. The procedure is rather elaborate:
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘If any man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him, 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, 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, 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. Then the priest shall bring her near and have her stand before the Lord, 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. 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. 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; 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” (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; 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.” The priest shall then write these curses on a scroll, and he shall wash them off into the water of bitterness. 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. 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; 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. 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. But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, she will then be free and conceive children. This is the law of jealousy: when a wife, being under the authority of her husband, goes astray and defiles herself, 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. Moreover, the man will be free from guilt, but that woman shall bear her guilt.’” (Numbers 5:11-31 NASB)
Of all the commandments that cause people to question whether Torah is applicable for today, this one must be near the top. One might describe this as a bizarre ritual, perhaps even superstition. It was carried out in ancient times, but not to the extreme conclusion. Accused women were given ample opportunity to confess their guilt, and many did so. Those who were innocent would not suffer harm from the bitter water, and thus would be acquitted of the charge of unfaithfulness. Still, why would YHVH require such a thing? And why is there no law of jealousy for a woman who suspects her husband? Questions abound regarding this commandment, many of them without answer. But there is something we can learn from it. As with all things of the Lord, it has application on more than one level. Certainly it applies on the individual level, regarding a husband and wife. Yet the more significant application is on the national level: the Law of Jealousy provides a picture of YHVH’s marriage covenant with His nation of Israel.
YHVH did marry Israel, and Israel did fall away into adultery. That is abundantly clear in Scripture, including the passage regarding the New, or Renewed, Covenant:
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34 NASB, emphasis added)
We know our God is a jealous God, and we know that He divorced the House of Israel (also called the House of Joseph, and Ephraim; Ezekiel 37:16-17) because of adultery with other gods (Jeremiah 3:8-9). We also know that the Lord wants His bride to return to Him (Jeremiah 3:1). Yet that return is not possible because of the commandment regarding marriage: any woman divorced from her husband may not return to him because that would bring defilement on the land (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). How then can this reconciliation happen? Only if someone dies. If death occurs, then all penalties are paid and the offender may start fresh. That is what the Apostle Paul means when he writes:
Or do you not know, brethren (for I am speaking to those who know the law), that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives? For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband. So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man. (Romans 7:1-3, NASB)
But there is a problem: Death is so final! How could God overcome this problem of death? There is only one way: if the one who died somehow comes back to life.
According to the Scripture, that is precisely what Yeshua of Nazareth did. He, claiming to be God himself in human form (Matthew 26:63-66; Mark 14:60-64; Luke 22:67-71; John 10:30, 17:11, 17:20-21), died taking the penalty of sin for the whole world on himself, and after three days He returned from the grave. In that way he conquered sin and death, and made it possible for God to redeem his bride (I Corinthians 15:1-28; Philippians 2:5-11). If this is true, then Paul is correct in saying:
Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter. (Romans 7:4-6 NASB)
Christian doctrines usually interpret this passage to mean that Christians are no longer subject to Torah. That is not what Paul wrote; he wrote that the law which barred us from marriage to God is now satisfied not only by the death and resurrection of Messiah, but also by the fact that those who identify with him are also spiritually dead and resurrected. Do you see the beauty of this? God made it possible for two lovers to reunite: He himself, and his beloved Israel. He did that by his own death, and by the resurrection of his bride who had died spiritually already through her sin.
But there is more that Yeshua’s death satisfied regarding the Torah, and that is where the Law of Jealousy has its greatest application. Our ancestors of Israel provoked YHVH to jealousy with their spiritual adultery, and therefore the Law of Jealousy had to be carried out. Yet there also Yeshua stepped in to take the penalty. Remember in the Garden of Gethsemane when He prayed that the cup would pass from Him (Matthew 26:36-42)? It was the cup of bitterness of the Law of Jealousy. He drank that cup, and the curse came upon Him. In a very real sense, His thigh wasted away and His abdomen swelled. Through the ordeal of His trials, scourging, carrying the weight of the cross, and the crucifixion itself, His legs gave way at last on the cross, causing Him to die of suffocation. Before His death, gravity itself and the struggle for each breath drove His internal organs lower into His abdomen, causing the swelling of the curse. And then came the worst part of all, that terrible sentence pronounced by the priest: the Lord make you a curse and an oath among your people. Yeshua experienced that curse at the very moment He cried out, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34).
Sadly, Yeshua is still suffering that curse to this day. He is largely rejected among the House of Judah, the very Jewish people of His nativity. Even among some Messianic and Hebrew Roots believers there is an element which questions the divinity of Yeshua, and His redeeming work in bringing the House of Israel back into fellowship with His heavenly Father. And that is among His own people! What more could be said about the status of Yeshua among those of other religious traditions, or those who have no regard for any religion or deity at all? One day YHVH will fix that. Again, Scripture is clear on the matter, such as this unambiguous statement by Zechariah:
I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn. (Zechariah 12:10 NASB)
And thus we see the lesson of the first oath presented in Nasso. The second one follows soon after. It is the Law of the Nazirite (Numbers 6:1-21). A Nazirite is a person set apart, or consecrated, to God for a specific purpose and a specific period of time. The Nazirite must refrain from all wine and strong drink, and may not even eat anything from the grape vine. He must let his hair grow the entire time of his vow, and he may not defile himself by coming into contact with any dead thing. As with the Law of Jealousy, the requirements for completing the Nazirite vow are elaborate, involving a seven-day period in which the Nazirite will shave his head and present the following sacrificial offerings:
– Burnt Offering: one male lamb
– Sin Offering: one ewe lamb
– Peace Offering: one ram
– Four varieties of Grain Offering: one basket of unleavened bread, cakes of fine flour, unleavened wafers, grain offering (roasted grain)
– Drink offering
– Other items according to specifics of the vow
Scripture tells us of four famous Nazirites: Samson, Samuel, John the Baptist, and Paul (Judges 13:2-25; I Samuel 1:9-11; Luke 1:8-17; Acts 18:18; 21:17-24). Three of them were Nazirites for life, dedicated to God from the womb. Of those, Samson and John were chosen by God and announced by His messengers, while Samuel was dedicated by his mother in recognition that his birth was a gift of God to her. All three of them served as judges of Israel in one way or another. Samson opened the way for Israel to be delivered from Philistine oppression; Samuel served as the last and greatest judge, and brought in the time of the kings; and John prepared the way for Messiah, preaching a gospel of repentance. Although we do not know the purpose or duration of Paul’s Nazirite vows, his completion of the purification requirements proved his unswerving devotion to the Torah of God.
What is the importance of the Law of the Nazirite today? As with the Law of Jealousy, it cannot be fulfilled because there is no Temple or priesthood to administer it, but there is something very important we can learn from this law: the lesson of holiness. Nazirites are individuals set apart from the common and ordinary things of the world and sanctified by God for His use alone. They are a picture of God’s holy people, the nation of Israel – both the Jewish and the non-Jewish parts. Many Jews do not recognize the special place they have as holy people of the Torah. Having had the oracles of God committed to them long ago, and being the people from whom Messiah came, they uphold the standard of righteousness the Lord requires of all who will serve Him. That same standard applies to that part of the nation who have for the most part misunderstood or ignored their identity as Israelites. Christians, in particular, have the testimony of Messiah, but in holding Torah at arm’s length they have missed the full lesson of holiness and the need to walk in it. This is a lesson the Nazirite law teaches us, and it is a lesson we must learn if we are to please our King. In fact, it is possible that our King entered into a Nazirite vow just before His crucifixion:
While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:26-29 NASB, emphasis added)
While it is questionable whether Yeshua is under a Nazirite vow, what is certain is that His last act of ministry was to bless His disciples:
And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. While He was blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they, after worshiping Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising God. (Luke 24:50-53 NASB)
What was the blessing Yeshua pronounced? It was the blessing that requires the lifting of the hands, the same blessing YHVH instructed Aaron to give to the people:
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying, ‘Thus you shall bless the sons of Israel. You shall say to them: The Lord bless you, and keep you; the Lord make His face shine on you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance on you, and give you peace.’ So they shall invoke My name on the sons of Israel, and I then will bless them.” (Numbers 6:22-27 NASB)
Thus we come to the reason for the lessons in holiness taught through the laws of Jealousy and of the Nazirite: the Lord God is Holy, and He will only place His Name on a holy people. This is only right; His Name is in the name He gave to our forefather Jacob, indicating the destiny of his descendants both in the flesh and in the spirit. We are Israel, the people who prevail with God.