Breaking Faith with the Lord

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Reading through the opening chapters of Numbers is not always the easiest undertaking for a 21st century believer. The first two chapters are a bit tedious as Israel takes a census of each tribe and learns how to be arranged around the Tent of Meeting. The next 100 verses explain the specific duties of the tribe of Levi as they “keep guard over the whole congregation” (3:7). Chapter 5 abruptly begins with Yahweh commanding the people of Israel to keep the camp clean because “I dwell in the midst of it” (v 4). Then, Yahweh explains how to make atonement “when a man or woman commits any of the sins that people commit by breaking faith with the Lord” (v 6). These words seem to leap off the page of Scripture. What does it mean to break faith with the Lord? Let’s consider this.

The phrase “breaking faith” is an ESV/NET Bible translation of the Hebrew verb mā’al (used 35 times in the OT – to act with fraud or treachery), and the noun ma’al (used 29 times in the OT – usually translated in the KJV as “trespass/transgression”). Though the Hebrew term for “faith” is absent, this phrase sends an unmistakable message that someone has committed a violation of trust and must face the consequences.  Let me demonstrate this with a delicate human illustration. In Numbers 5:12, this verb/noun combination is used in the matter of marital fidelity. The law allowed a man to challenge the sexual purity of his wife if she “goes astray and breaks faith with him” (v 12). At its core, sexual infidelity breaks the sacred trust between a husband and wife. This is exactly the idea of Numbers 5:6. The translation “breaking faith with the Lord” establishes the meaning of the text: Sin is a serious issue before a holy God for it fractures the relationship between God and man.

To strengthen the translation of the noun/verb combination “to break faith,” it is instructive to note a few other examples of the 20 OT passages where these terms are found together. In Leviticus 6:2, someone may commit “a breach of faith against the Lord by deceiving his neighbor.” Again, in Joshua 22:16, the eastern tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh built an imposing altar by the Jordan River and were called into question by Israel’s leaders for apparently committing a “breach of faith against God.” Then, in 2 Chronicles 28:19 King Ahaz is said to have encouraged Israel to sin for he “had been very unfaithful to the Lord.” Clearly, these examples support the notion of unfaithfulness, the fracturing of a sacred trust. 

The question now remains: Is there a way to restore a fractured relationship with the Lord?  The essential issue of the text is this: man has sinned, and God considers this a breach of relationship. Thankfully, God was interested in restoration and clearly marks the path of return in Numbers 5:6–8. He states: realize your guilt (vs. 6b), confess your sin (vs. 7a), make full restitution if the wrong demands it (vs. 7b), and submit a blood sacrifice upon which atonement is made (vs. 8).  This was not only good news for the ancient reader of Torah, but it is also a joy for us today. God is holy, and any sin fractures our relationship with him. Yet, his nature radiates grace and he stands ready to forgive and restore on the basis of his Son’s sacrifice (1 John 1:7).  So, let’s heed and rejoice in John’s words (v. 9): “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

This article is from the "Truth from the Agora" section of the Exposition, VBTS's monthly e-bulletin authored by President Daniel Davey. Click HERE to sign-up to receive the Exposition each month.

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