Numbers 6: Beyond Apology.
Restitution is an important concept in the Old Testament. At the basic definition of restoring something lost or stolen to an owner, it still exists today, but we’ve lost an essential element which the Biblical concept added: the additional fifth. I was intrigued, reading this passage in Numbers 5, and its counterpart in Leviticus 5, to see the words ‘add a fifth’ (v. 7). It seems that it’s not enough just to pay back the original amount, God asked His people to go above and beyond in making up for a sin. That’s intriguing, but also kind of refreshing when today’s society seems to fixate on doing the bare minimum. If our tendency is to not pay a penny more than we have to, God’s way is better.
The passage isn’t clear why the extra fifth is necessary, but we can make some guesses. I think the clue is in relationship. Ordinary compensation, paying back the full value of something taken, only covers the value of the thing taken, not the damage to the relationship involved. You might think that full compensation would satisfy honour and restore the ante status quo, but that’s not true. Something else has also been taken: trust. An injured party might be compensated, but their trust has also been lost. I think the extra fifth represents the rebuilding of that trust. It’s a way of saying: I’m so committed to this relationship that I want to pay back more than I have to, to show how sorry I am and to make it possible for the relationship to function again.
That’s true both for relationships between people, and between the guilty party and God. Paying the guilt offering covers the value of the crime, but the extra fifth is a way of saying to God: I’m sorry that I injured You as well and I want things to be right between us. In that sense it’s almost an act of worship. Now, of course, we could never pay God back the debt our sin have racked up, and we are incapable of making things right between us on our own – that’s why Jesus had to intervene and pay it for us – but I think it’s still true to say that this extra fifth, the idea of full restitution, is a way to truly signal our regret and contrition, and our desire to be at peace with the other party.
Think of it this way: compensation is a way of redressing a hurt in the past; the extra fifth is a way of investing in the quality of the relationship in the future. The Bible’s vision for relationship takes us beyond apology and into pro-active relationship-building. I think that’s beautiful. I think, if fully carried out, that could go a long way to curing the world’s ills.
Isn’t it amazing how God’s way is better? Numbers may be ancient, but in many ways it’s far more advanced than our latest trends and ethical standards.
It’s interesting how this passage follows on from verses 1-4, which are all about outward uncleanliness, because verses 5-10 are about inward uncleanliness. These verses are powerful in defining guilt and showing how it can be dealt with. The definition is both broad and clear. ‘Any man or woman who wrongs another in any way’ shows that this is universal and that we do not have the luxury of exempting little things or excusing certain circumstances.
It is also clear that when we wrong another, we’re being ‘unfaithful to the Lord’. However we sin and whoever is involved, our real guilt is toward God. The other person might not even know that you’ve wronged them, but that makes no difference. The Bible is resolute in not allowing things to fester or be swept under the carpet: sin must be confessed. That’s true even after Jesus has dealt permanently with our guilt, because the presence of sin can still harm us even if the ultimate penalty has been paid.
So, there’s a brief look at the Biblical concept of restitution, as we find it in Numbers. It’s yet another example of the surprising discoveries you can make in this book, if you read with open eyes and a ready heart.
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