Summary: These texts remind us that God’s concept of holiness is one that permeates the totality of our beings.
21 Eleazar the priest said to the troops who had gone to battle: “This is the statute of the law that the Lord has commanded Moses: 22 gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin, and lead— 23 everything that can withstand fire, shall be passed through fire, and it shall be clean. Nevertheless it shall also be purified with the water for purification; and whatever cannot withstand fire, shall be passed through the water. 24 You must wash your clothes on the seventh day, and you shall be clean; afterward you may come into the camp.” (Numbers 31:21-24; NRSV)
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Matthew 3:11; NRSV)
16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with[a] the Holy Spirit and fire. (Luke 3:16; NRSV)
5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (Acts 1:5; NRSV)
Our primary text in Numbers shares a directive given to the Israelite troops after vanquishing the Midianites. Spoil was taken from the enemy, however it could not be accepted into the community ‘as is’. Interestingly it is a priest and not a hazardous materials expert whom God uses to instruct the troops on processing the goods, as well as preparing the troops for safe reentry into the community.
If you are familiar with any part of Israel’s journey to the Promised Land, you know that God typically used the physical to teach them about the spiritual. In this instance, the cleansing of the goods and the troops required two steps. Step 1 – anything made of metal had to be submitted to fire to burn out the internal impurities. Step 2 – anything that could not withstand fire had to be submitted to water to wash away the external impurities. Internal and external purifying was demanded by God.
The cleansing roles of fire and water are contrasted in the secondary texts. These two elements are linked to the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. In mapping water cleansing to John and fire cleansing to Jesus, we hear an echo of the primary text. Water baptism is an external cleansing for ceremonial, ritualistic and symbolic purposes; fire baptism is an internal cleansing of the heart. Not either/or but both/and.
The need for external and internal purity is stated by Jesus in His conversations with the leaders of the religious community. He says that they clean the outside of a cup, but leave the inside dirty. He says that they are white-washed tombs that contain the bones of the dead. He says that a person is not defiled by what goes from the outside-in but by that which comes from the inside-out. He says that harboring the desire to commit adultery is just as bad as committing the act. In effect the holiness of God is comprehensive. God is concerned about the totality of our beings.